behaviour change

What is large-scale behaviour change?

Climate change is a global crisis that requires international collaboration. As an individual you might feel small, thinking, “What can I do to help fight climate change?”. Your actions matter, but different types of actions have different impacts, and different people make different impacts on the actions they take. Your actions, also known as behaviours, can include consumer choices, like eating a plant-based diet or walking instead of taking the car. Yet behaviours are also political choices, like voting or urging local politicians and businesses to take climate action, and social choices, like joining a social movement, volunteering, or talking about the climate crisis. When many people engage in these behaviours, we can get a large-scale change.

Why the climate crisis needs large-scale behaviour change

Behavioural changes have the potential of reducing emissions by 40-70% by 2050, according to the Sixth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on how to mitigate climate change. The report states that behavioural and cultural changes are a “substantial overlooked strategy”, often left out of transition pathways and scenarios. According to the IPCC report, individual behavioural change is insufficient for climate change mitigation unless embedded in structural and cultural change. To tackle the climate crisis, we need to engage in large-scale behaviour change.

Different types of behaviours

A highly cited paper by Wynes and Nicholas (2017) compared the impact of personal consumer behaviours, such as living car-free, switching to a plant-based diet, recycling, and having one fewer child. However, they excluded all behaviours aiming at changing political decisions, laws, and policies. Newer research from Nielsen and colleagues (2021), as well as the IPCC mitigation report, sheds light on people’s capacity to contribute to mitigating climate change in more ways than reducing their own emissions. These reports describe how people can be agents of social and political change, through actions like voting, participating in social movements, writing debate articles, and coming up with new ideas and innovations.

Every situation about how people can help solve the climate crisis should consider all kinds of behaviours, expanding beyond consumer behaviours. Starting a communal garden, participating in non-violent direct action, or in other ways working towards political decisions in line with climate research are important contributions that should be emphasized.

Direct mitigation behaviours: Reducing one’s own emissions, for example by taking the train instead of flying, can be categorized as a direct mitigation behaviour. It has a direct impact on your emissions. Examples of direct mitigation behaviours:

  • Living car-free
  • Going by train instead of airplane
  • Eating sustainable-sourced food

Yet direct mitigation behaviours are far from the only climate behaviours available for humans.

Indirect mitigation behaviours: These behaviours aim towards emission reduction, but in a more indirect and long-term way. For example:

  • Protesting
  • Writing op-eds
  • Debating
  • Engaging in political movements
  • Proposing that your company invest in solar power

Both of these categories of behaviours are essential in mitigating the climate crisis. Depending on how high your own emissions are, direct mitigation behaviours become more or less important to focus on.

Adaptation behaviours: In addition to mitigation behaviours, there’s a wide range of behaviours that are aimed at climate adaptation, on various levels. Many behaviours that are thought of as primarily mitigation behaviours actually serve a more adaptive purpose. For example, learning to live car-free will have a minor impact on global emissions, but a large impact on one’s own adaptation to the climate crisis.

Unequal causes and impacts

Emissions are unevenly produced. The climate crisis is an extremely unequal crisis, with regards both to who is impacted by its consequences, and who is causing its impacts. A 2020 Oxfam report shows that, globally, the top 1% in income emit twice as much as the total bottom 50%. As climate researcher Kevin Anderson puts it: If the top 10% cut their emissions to the level of average European citizen, and the bottom 90% did nothing, global emissions would reduce by one-third (the average European carbon footprint is around 7 metric tonnes of CO2 per person per year).

In general, the more money you have, the larger your emissions are. Yet it also means that you have a bigger reduction potential. The bigger your emission reduction potential, the more you should focus on direct mitigation behaviours. If the artist Taylor Swift were to stop flying her private jet, it would make a much bigger impact on decreasing emissions than if the average citizen of Pakistan – a country with low emissions per capita – focused primarily on trying to reduce their emissions. If your carbon footprint is already low, there’s little potential to lower it further. 

Different people can have different impacts. Another reason for people with huge emission reduction potential to take climate action is that, in general, people with more money also possess more power – organizationally, politically, or socially. This means that they have a greater potential of being role models for others, for both direct and indirect actions. Research by PhD candidate Steve Westlake shows that when leaders engage in high-impact low emission behaviours, others tend to follow. What’s more, said leaders’ credibility and approval increases substantially. 

If a person has a small emission reduction potential, efforts to contribute to climate mitigation should focus on indirect mitigation behaviours. In other words: taking collective action, for example by joining a climate group that arrange demonstrations or civil disobedience actions, to promote brave climate policies and regulations, such as working towards a ban of private jets.

Research findings

Large-scale behaviour change goes beyond what we do as isolated individuals. Rather, it is aimed at influencing decisions that change laws, policies and preconditions to make it easier for the majority to live sustainably. One increasingly common method for doing this is engaging in climate activism. Research from Social Change Lab states that there is strong evidence that protests or protest movements can be effective in achieving their desired outcomes, and affect public opinion, discourse and voting behaviour. However, existing political structures and current political opinion will affect the outcomes of protests on policy making. It should be noted that there’s little research on protest outcomes done in the Global South.

Beyond protest movements, it seems that doing things collectively and organised is key to making an impact. Even when engaging in low impact political consumerism, the probability of reaching a larger impact lies in getting enough people to engage. Research on social norms shows that when a large enough minority in a group – somewhere around 25% – start expressing a wish for change, then the whole group will be influenced. The more active the minority is, the fewer they need to be. Historically, societal changes have been made possible when around 3–5% of the population have engaged in highly active and regular protests, including peaceful civil disobedience and other protest methods. Large-scale behaviour change entails a variety of methods in a variety of contexts. 

What can we do to make large-scale behaviour changes?

It depends who you are. It’s not just a matter of what behaviours need to change, but also of who has the capacity to do what. The question, “What can you do to decrease your emissions?” should always be preceded by the question, “Who are you?”. The higher a person’s own emissions are, the higher their emission reduction potential. 

Moving from individual to collective action. Large and complex problems cannot be solved by isolated individuals. Moving towards collective action requires learning new skills, such as collaborating with others, conflict management, and community building. It’s more beneficial to start practising these skills directly, rather than practising small-scale behaviours.

A tool for large scale behaviour change: When making changes for the climate crisis, the Impact Arrow is a tool to help people look at the bigger picture and choose how to best use their time, competence, and resources. It is meant to be used as a teaching and analytical tool when planning climate interventions.

All climate interventions can be placed somewhere along two complementary spectrums: how high/low the impact of the intervention will be, and how short-/long-term its effects will be.

Let’s look at a few examples of how the Impact Arrow can be used. 

A. Recycling: In a survey of European attitudes towards taking climate action, the number one thing people reported as very important for preserving the environment and planet was recycling. Recycling is a low-impact behaviour. It won’t make much of a difference for mitigating climate change, and it won’t contribute to long-term change, since recycling in itself won’t make the production or packaging less wasteful. Recycling is also a behaviour we usually carry out alone. On the Impact Arrow this will be placed down in the left corner.

B. Skipping a flight: On the individual level, flying is a high-impact behaviour. Yet skipping a flight won’t create long-term change. When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, international flights dropped as much as 98% in certain months, a massive global behavioural change. This was, however, followed by large governmental support for airlines, to keep them from going bankrupt. In 2022, flight levels had risen again. It seems that for long-term change to happen, there’s a need to move away from acting alone, to acting together; from acting as consumers, towards acting as citizens aiming to change the politics, policies, laws and economic system. The Swedish campaign We Stay on the Ground is an example of how people can get together to influence others and form new social norms, such as “flight shame“. Acting together has a greater potential of creating long-term change compared to acting alone.

C. Tax on plastic bags: When moving away from isolated behaviours, such as eating a vegetarian meal or taking the train, we enter a combination of behaviours, carried out by a number of people, aiming towards changing the conditions in which we live. This can contribute to more long-term change. An example is the tax on plastic bags implemented in Sweden in May 2020, which was reportedly successful in decreasing people’s use of plastic bags and shifting preferences towards paper bags. The change in taxation has acted as a behaviour regulator. The decision to impose the plastic bag tax was of course preceded by numerous behaviours, from writing op-eds to raising the issue to politicians – actions where people worked collectively and over time. While we need to drastically reduce our use of plastics, plastic bags only account for a small amount of the total use of plastics. It’s an intervention that seems to have had a substantial impact, but on the Impact Arrow we’ll still place it lower down towards the arrow head, as a low-impact, but long-term intervention. Note: It was recently announced that the new Swedish government will remove the tax, which highlights how long-term consequences can change due to future political decisions.

D. End fossil fuel subsidies: To make large-scale changes, we need to focus on interventions that have the potential of leading to high-impact and long-term changes. The longer time frame an intervention is aiming at, the more difficult it is to know the exact outcome and impact. Similar to interventions in the lower right corner on the Impact Arrow, interventions aimed at high- and long-term impact need a multitude of behaviours carried out by a multitude of people working collectively in an organised way, aiming at changing political and corporate decisions, policies and laws. Some examples of high-impact and long-term interventions include putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies, prohibiting fossil fuel ads, shutting down a coal mine, and changing the law to include ecocide. These interventions can be placed in the upper right corner of the Impact Arrow.

Next directions

Implications of high impact, long term interventions: The further to the right on the Impact Arrow we aim, the greater our chance for large-scale change. From a behavioural perspective, it’s more efficient to change the system into a more sustainable one, rather than trying to make people live sustainably in an unsustainable system. Large-scale action requires a massive amount of collaboration and cooperation. In addition, long-term interventions need to be continuously evaluated and revised to keep in line with the overarching goal. 

Using all four corners of the Impact Arrow: Change needs to happen on all levels in society. Therefore, we need to use all areas of the Impact Arrow. It’s possible to simultaneously do things on different levels. Recycling, even if it’s a low-impact behaviour, is still important, but shouldn’t be confused with contributing to high-impact and long-term change. Problems arise when people don’t use the whole range of their behavioural repertoire, or if they think that small-scale behaviours contribute to high-impact change.

Next directions for research. Considering the urgency of phasing out fossil fuels, there is a need for future research and policy to focus on large-scale behaviour change. This might include research topics such as:

  • What facilitates or motivates people to engage in collective, indirect mitigation behaviours? For example, engaging in active citizenship or organising co-workers to influence the workplace towards phasing out fossil fuels.
  • What behaviour interventions are most effective for high-impact direct mitigation behaviours, like avoiding air travel?

Research should also more clearly include indirect mitigation behaviours when talking about behaviour change in climate/environmental work. 

Policy should look at how to facilitate sustainable behaviour, rather than appeal to individuals to behave sustainably in a non-sustainable system. Further policy should focus more on high-impact behaviours instead of low-impact activities. Policymakers should not be afraid of deciding on laws and regulations that direct behaviours towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This is an effective way towards large-scale behaviour change.

Further reading


Klimatpsykologi by Frida Hylander, Kata Nylén & Kali Andersson, published in 2019 by Natur och Kultur.

The Oxford Handbook of Political Consumerism, edited by Magnus Boström, Michele Micheletti, and Peter Oosterveer, published in 2019 by Oxford University Press.

Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, published in 2011 by Columbia University Press.

Articles and Online Sources

Air travel down 60 per cent, as airline industry losses $370 billion: ICAO, published on January 15, 2021, by UN (United Nations) News.

Air travel sees strong demand recovery in January but impacted by omicron, published on March 10, 2022, by IATA (International Air Transport Association) Pressroom, Press Release No: 14.

Celebrities use private jets excessively. It’s a climate nightmare., published in The Washington Post on August 2, 2022, by Allyson Chiu.

Climate Scientist: World’s Richest Must Radically Change Lifestyles to Prevent Global Catastrophe, published in Democracy Now on December 11, 2018, by Amy Goodman.

Effekter av plastbärkasseskatten (Effects of the plastic bag tax), published on March 29, 2022, by Naturvårdsverket (The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency). Article in Swedish.

Few willing to change lifestyle to save the planet, climate survey finds, published in The Guardian on November 07, 2021, by Jon Henley.

Greenhouse gas emission statistics – carbon footprints, published in March, 2022, by Eurostat. 

How new laws could help combat the planetary crisis, published on June 24, 2021, by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).

The only way forward is together, published in Climate Psyched on October 5, 2022, by The Climate Psychologists. 

Who should lower their emissions? published in Climate Psyched on January 25, 2023, by The Climate Psychologists.

You are more than a consumer, published in Climate Psyched on May 17, 2022, by The Climate Psychologists.

Scientific Press

Confronting Carbon Inequality, published in Oxfam on September 21, 2020, by Tim Gore.

Literature Review: Protest Outcomes, published by the Social Change Lab in April 2022, by James Ozden and Sam Glover.

Selected Research/Scientific Papers

Centola, D., Becker, J., Brackbill, D., & Baronchelli, A. (2018). Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science (New York, N.Y.)360(6393), 1116–1119.

IPCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, R. Slade, A. Al Khourdajie, R. van Diemen, D. McCollum, M. Pathak, S. Some, P. Vyas, R. Fradera, M. Belkacemi, A. Hasija, G. Lisboa, S. Luz, J. Malley, (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. doi: 10.1017/9781009157926

Nielsen, K. S., Nicholas, K. A., Creutzig, F., Dietz, T., & Stern, P. C. (2021). The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions. Nature Energy, 6(11), 1011–1016.

Westlake, S. (2017). A counter-narrative to carbon supremacy: Do leaders who give up flying because of climate change influence the attitudes and behaviour of others? SSRN.

Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2017). The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, 12(7), 074024.

Author and version info

May 18, 2023

Authors: Paula Richter, Frida Hylander, Kata Nylén, Kali Andersson 

The Climate Psychologists @Climate Psyched

Editor: Colleen Rollins