A recent study has shed light on what actions Americans have taken to address climate change and what motivates these actions. The new findings, published in PLOS One, suggest that a growing number of people in the United States are actively engaging in climate-friendly behaviors, driven by their sense of responsibility and concern for the environment.
Previous research has shown that while a significant portion of the population acknowledges the importance of addressing climate change, actual engagement in climate-friendly behaviors has been limited. This discrepancy between intention and action has raised questions about the factors that motivate individuals to take meaningful steps to combat climate change.
“Collective action to address climate change could make a critical difference in arresting catastrophic events. I wanted to know how much people were already doing and what might be standing in the way of their doing more,” said study author Sabrina McCormick, the founder of Resilience Entertainment and former professor at George Washington University.
For the new study, the researchers recruited potential participants from the United States between May 2021 and February 2022. They used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), an online survey participant platform, to screen and select participants.
To focus on individuals with at least minimal concern about climate change, they excluded applicants who denied climate change or its human contribution. This resulted in 1,269 eligible workers, out of which 756 participants consented, and 741 completed the baseline survey.
The online survey consisted of 80 questions across seven domains, covering beliefs about climate change, feelings of susceptibility to its impacts, the importance of actions by individuals, communities, and governments, reasons for taking action, confidence to take action, motivation to take action, and actions taken in the past six months.
The study found that participants reported engaging in various climate-related actions, which fell into two distinct categories: “Advocacy” and “Everyday Actions.” Everyday actions, such as buying environmentally friendly products or talking to friends about environmental threats, were more common and were undertaken with greater frequency.
In contrast, advocacy actions, like contacting politicians to urge environmentally friendly policies, were less common but still carried out by a considerable proportion of participants. Participants expressed lower confidence and motivation for advocacy actions compared to everyday actions.
Most participants perceived themselves as susceptible to the impacts of climate change, with 54% feeling that these impacts would be severe for themselves and their families.
Motivations for taking climate action varied among respondents. Participants engaged in climate actions primarily due to a perceived threat to the environment (83%) and climate change (81%). Other motivations included knowing what actions to take (54%), having family or friends who care about the environment (48%), and the belief that they were wealthy enough to help (16%).
Government actions were deemed highly important by the majority of participants (91%), with smaller majorities supporting actions by communities (83%) and individuals (59%). While many felt a responsibility to address environmental health and climate change, only a minority (30%) believed that their individual actions could make a significant difference.
“The findings from our study are hopeful in that they indicate people are already concerned about and taking action,” McCormick told PsyPost. “We simply need to focus our collective energy on the right actions to really make a difference together.”
Across various demographic groups, there was a general consensus on the importance of actions at individual, community, and government levels. While Democrats exhibited slightly higher levels of engagement with climate change, differences among political affiliations were modest.
Older participants and those with higher incomes tended to have higher motivation and confidence in taking action. They were also more likely to endorse specific reasons for taking action. However, demographic differences were generally not substantial, highlighting a shared concern for addressing climate change.
McCormick was surprised to find “that there weren’t greater differences between different kinds of people across America. Our findings indicate a broad intense concern about climate change and engagement with it, no matter who you are or where you live.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the motivations behind climate-friendly behaviors, it’s important to note that the research focused on a specific demographic group with at least minimal climate concern. Therefore, caution should be exercised when generalizing the findings to the entire U.S. population.
Looking ahead, there is a need for further research to address critical questions. “We still need to understand which climate outcomes people are mostly working to address, and to find ways to support people working together to achieve the climate goals that are most critical today,” McCormick said.
“Anecdotally, I have seen that people who are actively engaged in doing something about climate are less anxious and frightened about our future,” she added. “This and the findings in our research should encourage people to take any action they can. Just start anywhere and find a path forward.”
The study, “Climate action in the United States“, was authored by Sabrina McCormick, Annette Aldous, and Laurilee Yarbrough.