View of Manhattan from the perspective of a man riding a bike.
A man rides a bikeshare in New York City. Because bikeshares are found throughout cities and can be ridden one-way, they offer an accessible option to replace more carbon-intensive one-way transit like taxis. © Kevin Arnold

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With our money and our choices, we vote daily on the ways our global ecosystems are used and on the amount of carbon dioxide we’re emitting into the atmosphere.

Science shows us that our human behaviors actually provide plenty of opportunities to encourage more thoughtful, sustainable actions.

Around the world, people are developing creative solutions to fight climate change. To identify the best ideas and refine them, the Conservancy has joined Rare, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, United Nations Development Programme, and National Geographic on a contest called Solution Search: Climate Change Needs Behavior Change.

The key to behavioral change? Meeting people where they are. According to Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment, which helped craft this contest, there are three powerful methods that can get us there: choice architecture, social incentives, and emotional appeals.

  1. Choice Architecture

    Setting Default Printing Options to Double-Sided

    printed sheets of paper coming out a printer
    Small changes can reap big rewards. © Pixabay

    Our decisions are greatly influenced by the choices we are given. Since humans crave simplicity, making sustainable behaviors as easy as possible can have significant, positive outcomes for conservation. When Rutgers University noted that their computer labs were using too much paper, they simply changed the default settings on their printers to print double-sided.

    While the option was still present to print single-sided, the majority of users had no preference and accepted the less-paper option. At a major university like Rutgers, making conservation a norm saved 7,391,065 sheets of paper in the first semester, or the equivalent of 1,280 trees over the whole the academic year.

  2. Social Incentives

    Showing Homeowners the Utility Usage of their Neighbors

    As social creatures that desire to belong, we behave not only on an individual level but as members of larger social groups. When a norm within a group becomes more sustainable, an individual has the social incentive to follow through with the Earth-friendly action.

    For instance, providing homeowners with data about their utility consumption compared to that of their neighbors has been proven to modestly reduce consumption among high users, by 1-2 percent per year.

    As Arizona State University professor Robert Cialdini points out in Popular Science, “This isn’t about pushing or prodding people into a choice, but informing them about a choice. Simply learning what people around you have chosen to do about their energy consumption informs you about what is appropriate, and influences you to do the same.”

  3. Emotional Appeals

    Helping People Experience Climate Change Through Virtual Reality

    screenshot of a virtual reality project

    Psychologists view the brain as having two systems: System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional while System 2 is slower, logical, and more analytical. Because System 1 is so quick, emotional appeals can be a very powerful element for changing behavior.

    The vastness of climate change can make it hard for people to connect with the issue on that System 1 level. To change that, Stanford University is using virtual reality (VR) to directly immerse people in some of climate change’s sinister yet hard-to-visualize processes. The simulation allows users to stand in heavy traffic and follow CO2 molecules from car tailpipes to the ocean where they’re absorbed. Then, users move among coral that are losing their ability to support marine life due to ocean .

    A Stanford study tested the VR experience against a video about acidification. Not only did the immersive experience cause a greater sense of empathy than the video, but the attitude change endured longer.

    These solutions are doable and effective, and the world needs more of them. If you are using creative behavior change strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions, enter Solution Search by August 7. In addition to a $25,000 grand prize, finalists get to network with other innovators and test their ideas with some of the biggest names in conservation, development and behavioral science.

    If we leverage what we know about human motivations and decision-making, we can transform our behaviors into actions that are better for the planet and the climate.

    Share your solution today.