How to Make Climate Action Work

You cannot change large numbers of people’s beliefs or behaviors by giving them lots of facts and rational arguments, especially when the issue is political. Beliefs and behaviors are deeply rooted in our social relations and commitments to others and to the groups we identify with.

Peaceful protests in the streets can certainly get the attention of “the authorities.” They may be persuaded, or the whole thing can backfire. In response to recent protests in England by the Extinction Rebellion movement, elements in Parliament are trying to pass draconian legislation that makes any protest that is inconvenient illegal. Isn’t that what protests are supposed to do? Call out government failures to respond to serious situations, in this case the climate emergency, by making “business as usual” inconvenient until foot-dragging politicians act responsibly in the public interest.

Personal Relations over Rational Arguments

Most beliefs and behaviors are sustained by how people engage with members of their group—their social network. Social network science grew out of physics back in the 1970s, but was constrained back then by limited computing power.  Today, however, with massively greater computing power it is possible to describe social networks of significant size and complexity, and many more network characteristics can be explored. Keep in mind how complex a network can be, even if composed of only a dozen or so individuals, each of which may have any number of different relations with any of the other members. The number of possible combinations and permutations of relations is huge.

Recently, Damon Centola, at the University of Pennsylvania, has done a number of experiments with existing social networks, as have others, that show that a number of assumptions used by marketers and others to exert social influence were incorrect. Knowledge of facts and exposure to advertising are far less effective in influencing beliefs and behavior than are the interactions among members of highly connected social networks. These might be neighbors, groups of professionals, or political, economic, or public interest groups.

So-called ‘influencers‘ on social media often turn out to be skilled at jumping in on an emerging contagion and are assumed to be driving it when in fact they are ‘piggybacking’ on the early stage of an emergent trend. They in turn influence many ‘followers.’

However, the actual trend usually emerges because of the interactions within social networks where affiliation and trust are high. For example: Back in the 1930s I think it was, when producers first tried to get American farmers to adopt the use of hybrid corn by using massive advertising campaigns, nothing much happened. It was only when a few individual farmers tried it, then influenced the members of their own local social networks that widespread adoption began and accelerated.

Personal Climate Action is Social

So, an idea occurred to me after reading about these examples and various recent experiments. Some experiments arranged for networks of scientists to solve a problem under differing communication criteria within their professional networks. The results showed that some kinds of internal network connections yielded much better solutions to scientific or technical problems than did others.

That got me to think that the right kind of social network arrangements could be organized among climate activists and organizations, such as XR, Fridays for Future, and the Sunrise Movement, to make their efforts much more effective. By applying the findings of those experiments, these movements could change beliefs and behaviors in their local areas much more effectively and fast, than they could by street protests. civil disobedience, or mass media campaigns.

It also occurred to me that there are really just two dimensions where massive societal change is necessary to address effectively our climate emergency: 1) the global corporate industrial-consumer economy that emits all that carbon into the atmosphere and oceans; and 2) the local/regional areas where increasingly severe damage is done to ecosystems.

Can Social Network Science Make Climate Action Work?

The findings from social network science seem most applicable to local/regional social networks of concerned citizens, whose biggest problem is that they do not know what they can do about the climate crisis. Mass movements should continue to pressure governments and corporations to change their destructive behavior. However, local/regional direct action to restore and regenerate ecosystems can have two extremely important benefits, which can also happen fast if effectively organized.

First, local/regional social networks could begin ecological restoration where people live (this could produce conflict with existing economic powers). Second, such local groups could begin to abandon the industrial-consumer economy by creating and supporting alternative locally sourced economic goods and services–that is, a circular or ‘donut‘ economy. This strategy, with many such networks connected to each other globally, could have the collective effect of “shrinking the technosphere” that spews carbon into our global habitat, the Earth System.

Well, I suppose all this may sound rather grandiose. However, the predicament of our climate emergency is about as grand as it gets. To my mind, the approach I propose can work, but only if people involved effectively organize themselves to take action together.

It seems to me that the youth-based climate movements could have the best chance at launching such a strategy. They have already well organized themselves effectively as mass movements. The young have the least attachment to the past and the most to gain or lose in the future—their minds are more flexible. They can organize local/regional social networks for direct climate action.

Margaret Mead famously said that all important social changes begin with a few dedicated people taking action together—that is what these movements are doing. Who can change the world but today’s new climate movements—especially if organized as a network of local networks taking local action all over the world? As Bill Moyers exclaimed, the only way to oppose organized money is with organized people.


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