Research Summary

Beyond individual behaviour change: the role of power, knowledge and strategy in tackling climate change

Concept of Power Influences Individual Behavior

Environmental Education Research

Current debate around environmental action examines why people become involved in collective action, with a citizen group, for example, versus changing individual behavior, such as consumer habits. This study sought to understand what influences the conscious choice between individual or collective-level engagement. Previous research suggests that an individual’s choice to engage in collective or individual action stems from their viewpoint on environmental problems and solutions. In this study the authors examined a different possibility: that individuals’ environmental decisions stem from how they conceptualize their own power over particular behaviors and the degree to which they believe the behavior can create change.

This study focused on the nature and role of power in decisions about how people will act in the face of climate change specifically. The study sample was comprised of 12 environmentally-aware young adults between the ages of 25 and 35. The authors purposefully selected study participants with similar knowledge of climate change problems and solutions so that the observed behavioral differences would relate to factors other than conceptual knowledge. In this exploratory study, the authors used in-depth interviews to collect data that helped illuminate how behavior of environmentally conscious individuals is based on concepts of their power to create change.

The study yielded five important findings on a person’s beliefs and their corresponding behavior. First, respondents identified feeling powerless in the context of climate change. They reported that any individual action seemed to be negligible compared to the magnitude of the problem.

Second, the authors could find no simple way to distinguish social- and individual-level action, as they had originally set out to do. All participants who were active on the collective social level were also engaged in individual behavior change. However, the opposite was not the case: Many respondents were engaged in individual behavior change but not collective action.

Third, all respondents were critical toward people who try to convince others to change their individual behavior and toward education actions promoting this, such as awareness-raising campaigns. The “paternalistic” or “blaming” character of these actions was commonly cited as the respondents’ reason for their disapproval of these approaches. This finding suggests that measures such as awareness-raising campaigns can have a counterproductive effect on environmentally aware citizens.

Fourth, the authors found that many respondents gave opinions that seemed contradictory or at odds with each other. The researchers observed that one reason for this lack of coherence is an apparent gap between analysis and strategy. For example, one participant articulated capitalist economy (social structure) as the problem driving climate change, however, his/her solution was for people to “stop consuming” (individual behavior).

Finally, there was a discord in respondents’ proposed abstract and concrete strategies. In response to one interview question, participants advocated collaboration between large manufacturers and environmental interests; however, when pressed in a separate question to respond to an actual problem (a polluting power company), all changed their stance to a conflict-oriented approach. This discord between abstract and concrete strategies may say something about the coherence of analyses, strategies, and visions within the current environmental movement.

The study concluded that many environmentally aware citizens engage in individual action because they feel powerless to solve the larger-scale, societal causes of climate change. Feeling bound by an imposed system, they engage in actions within their reach as an attempt to minimize their personal negative impact; however, none of the participants identified their actions as having meaningful impact. Combating this disconnect between knowledge of problems, knowledge of action strategies, and perceptions of efficacy is crucial for empowering environmentally aware citizens.

The Bottom Line

This study’s findings suggested that environmentally aware citizens may not need additional conceptual knowledge of environmental problems. Rather, they need action-oriented knowledge to craft coherent environmental strategies and visions. By taking this next step, a specialized education strategy can change an individual’s concept of power (or powerlessness) over environmental outcomes, thus allowing a person to perceive action as meaningful in the face of climate change.