Climate change is an existential risk for humankind.  Environmental psychologists concerned about climate change have so far focused mainly on understanding and promoting environmentally friendly behavior of individuals.  This results in knowledge about easy-to-research but low-impact behaviors and falls short of the impact that psychology could have on broader societal transformation. To develop this impact, we focused on answers psychology might offer to questions raised by transformation studies, which explore how innovations in niches change the incumbent, dominant system. 

With respect to climate change, what does psychology have to say about how we can transform a system that exploits and degrades the environment and puts human survival at risk? The first step to answering this question is articulating a vision, the goal towards which we should be heading.

What Does a Desirable Vision for the Future Look Like?

The "doughnut economy" provides a vision that has the potential to unite people behind climate change efforts. A doughnut economy is a "safe space" in which the basic needs of all people are met while no boundaries of planetary resource regeneration, such as biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, or climate change, are transgressed. Calculations show that there are enough regenerative resources on the planet to provide for the basic needs of the 10 billion people predicted to live on Earth by mid-century if the resources were distributed equally. The vision is thus feasible in principle. The issue is the distribution of resources, not their amount.

Psychology can specify what these basic needs are, how people can be encouraged to adopt a good but resource-light life (for example, by consuming less, not greener), and how majorities can be persuaded to support corresponding policies.

How Do We Get There?

Researchers from systems analysis identified social tipping points to transform the current state into this "safe space," at least with respect to CO2 emissions. Like ecosystems, human societies can reach tipping points that are difficult to reverse and can lead to persistent changes away from or ideally towards greater sustainability. Researchers have identified six such tipping points that could put the goal of net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions within reach by 2050. These tipping points include changes in the financial markets, the construction and energy sectors, in education, transparency, values, and norms.

Things are changing in the right direction in many of these areas. Energy from sustainable sources is booming and often cheaper than fossil fuels. Climate change has entered the mainstream and sustainability reports and CO2 labels are becoming increasingly more widespread. Those who say "It's all greenwashing" have a point. But when companies like BP feel pressure to at least pay lip service to sustainability, it indicates that social norms and values are changing in favor of greater sustainability.

At the same time, big changes in social norms are unsettling. To accompany and accelerate the transition, psychology could help people deal with their loss aversion and develop interventions to minimize resistance to change, both in individuals and within institutions.

Who Can Speed Up the Process?

In our view, three groups of people play a decisive role in these social changes: affluent individuals, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, and activists.

The affluent disproportionally contribute to climate change both directly, through their resource-intensive lifestyles, and indirectly through the decisions they make in the positions of power they occupy. Hence their behaviors and decisions have considerable leverage.

The generation born between 1946 and 1964 constitutes a large part of the general population, at least in many countries of the Global North, and can influence and support pro-environmental policies as well as scale pro-environmental behaviors.

Activists, in turn, keep the topic of climate change present in the public discourse and exert political pressure for pro-environmental policies.

These three groups have different functions and strengths that can move society toward sustainability. Psychological knowledge is needed to better understand what motivates and supports these groups. This understanding will enhance strategies to persuade the wealthy to act for sustainability, to realize the potential of the generation 1946–1964, and to protect activists from burnout.

Integrating Psychology and Transformation Research

By targeting their research at unanswered questions in transformation research, environmental psychologists can accelerate the shift towards greater sustainability. We hope that our proposals will be taken up by the psychological research community and that we will soon have initial answers that will in turn be taken up by transformation research.

For Further Reading

Gurtner, L. M., & Moser, S. (2024). The where, how, and who of mitigating climate change: A targeted research agenda for psychology. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 94, 102250.

Raworth, K. (2017). A Doughnut for the Anthropocene: Humanity's compass in the 21st century. The Lancet Planetary Health, 1(2), e48–e49.

Otto, I. M., Donges, J. F., Cremades, R., Bhowmik, A., Hewitt, R. J., Lucht, W., Rockström, J., Allerberger, F., McCaffrey, M., Doe, S. S. P., Lenferna, A., Morán, N., van Vuuren, D. P., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2020). Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth's climate by 2050. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 117(5), 2354–2365.

Lilla Gurtner is a post-doctoral psychologist at the Centre for Development and Environment, where she researches cooperation in civil society organization and how they can transform society.