Talking about climate change could reduce global warming, says new study

Social learning matters in arresting climate change, just as much as geophysical factors like plant respiration or solar reflectivity of the earth’s surface, says a surprising new study. In a pioneering model of socio-climate interaction, researchers linked social dynamics to predicted climate changes themselves, to come up with better ways of preventing climate change mitigation.

Washington, DC - April 29, 2017: Thousands of people attend the People
Washington, DC - April 29, 2017: Thousands of people attend the People's Climate March to stand up against climate change. Image Credit: Nicole S Glass /Shutterstock

If the rate of social learning improves as required, says the study, climate change can be contained by over one degree Celsius. Conversely, if social norms nip climate-friendly action in the bud, humans will continue to act without regard to the reality of rapid global warming. This is not something new, of course, but the mathematics of the model proved its truth “clearly and unequivocally”, according to Professor Madhur Anand, study author.

For the first time ever, this mathematical model factors in social processes to predicted climate change. She builds her work on the well-known but neglected fact that human behavior not only determines carbon emission rates, but is influenced by it as well. Anand’s work over the last ten years on other human-environment systems, like forests and pest management, has thoroughly proved that human behavior is fundamental to bringing about change.

Social learning is defined as “the process whereby individuals learn new behaviors, values and opinions from other.” Social learning is strongly linked to social norms, which determine what types of behavior are accepted and practiced on a large scale. Social norms therefore influence human behavior very strongly.

If social norms favor climate mitigatory actions (directed at preventing or reducing global warming), more individuals will typically adopt such behavior.  The opposite may occur with destructive social norms. Thus changing social norms is an important way to achieve climate-friendly action on a wide scale, though not in isolation.

While geophysical analyses and technological solutions abound, the current study focuses on the effects of coupling social learning with climate change. Sharing information about switching to low meat consumption or a greener vehicle, for example, changes social thinking over time, and influences climate change.

The rate at which social learning occurs is a crucial determinant of the utility of such behavior. With low rates of learning, only a few individuals will take mitigatory action despite climate changes that should provide an incentive to mitigatory action. Social norms are thus likely to be unhelpful initially.

Here, social learning is the first priority. The higher the rate of social learning, the faster the number of mitigators crosses the line at which it becomes useful, creating a positive feedback loop. This increases their number at an accelerating pace, causing a sharp rise.  This will directly affect carbon emissions, say the researchers.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) called last year for action to stabilize climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. The current study concludes that without accelerating social learning, the target is not achievable.

Co-author Thomas Bury commented says: “Our socio-climate model indicates that an increase in social media and other campaigns to raise awareness, such as climate marches and international reports, should ideally be followed by governmental and other incentives to reduce carbon emissions.”

The study thus identifies the promotion of widespread social learning, coupled with subsequent reduction in the costs of mitigatory action, as an optimal intervention for climate change. Social learning may occur in many ways, including public events and meetings, courses on climate change, and neighborhood interactions.

One recent instance is the way the IPCC report was given extensive space in the media, with discussions and editorials on the recommendations. This was immediately followed by climate marches, and then by a tax on high carbon emission fuels and rebates on low-emission fuels in all Canadian regions without emissions pricing plans.

The current study also highlights the need to consider the long-term impact of any initiative. Says Anand, “As a society, we need to get used to thinking 50 years into the future with climate change.”

The meat of this study is, in short, that human interactions really can bring about much-needed change faster and more radically, if exploited properly. As Anand sums up, “By looking at unique aspects of humans, maybe we can tap into these aspects to lead to the dramatic and widespread change that is urgently needed.”

The study was published in the journal PLoS Computational Biology.


Bury T. M. et al., (2019). Charting pathways to climate change mitigation in a coupled socio-climate model. PLoS Computational Biology.

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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  1. Frank Sterle Frank Sterle Canada says:

    I’ve been left most troubled by the comparably constrained reporting on man-made global warming and the large part played by fossil fuel extraction, refinement and consumption, including that of Canadian fractured gas and crude oil. Contrarily, Facebook offers much more freedom of information.
    In an interview with the online National Observer, renowned linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky stated in regards to “[even] the liberal media” that, though there are stories published about manmade climate change, “it’s as if … there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying ‘look, this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular [non-environmental] coverage simply disregards it.”
    Then there was the unsigned editorial in (local community newspaper) The Peace Arch News printed just before Earth Day 2017, titled “Earth Day in need of a facelift”. (Varied lengths of the same editorial were also printed in sister-papers The Langley Times, Chilliwack Progress and Surrey Now-Leader, although other B.C. community newspapers ran it as well.)
    It opined that “some people would argue that [the day of environmental action] … is an anachronism”, that it should instead be a day of recognizing what we’ve societally accomplished. “And while it [has] served us well, in 2017, do we really need Earth Day anymore?”
    This notion was to me so absurd that I mused as to whether it was penned by Tom Fletcher, who fully supports increased Canadian fossil fuel harvesting and criticizes man-made climate change science.
    In all my years, I’ve never once heard anyone, in or outside of the news-media, suggest that we’re doing so well as to render Earth Day “an anachronism”. Still, considering the sorry state of the planet’s natural environment, it was the most irresponsible form of editorial journalism I’ve yet seen in my three decades of newspaper consumption. For, although some readers may dismiss it as just another opinion, there are many readers (as I once was) who’ll take such unsigned editorials as a seriously considered and balanced argument.
    Indeed, it was the day I became the most jaded towards the profession and became more familiar with the completely open forum Facebook platforms.
    What’s truly unfortunate, however, is that such social media open forum availability on this most pressing topic may have still been at least a decade too late.

  2. Frank Sterle Frank Sterle Canada says:

    WHETHER it’s unprecedentedly large-scale flooding or geologically invasive fracking or mass deforestation or increasingly dry forests resulting in record-breaking deadly wildfires in California and B.C. or a myriad of other categories of large-scale toxic pollutant emissions and dumps, currently there’s discouragingly insufficient political gonad planet-wide to sufficiently address it.
    Perhaps due to (everyone’s sole spaceship) Earth’s large size, there seems to be a general obliviousness in regards to our natural environment. It’s as though throwing non-biodegradable garbage down a dark chute, or pollutants emitted out of exhaust and drainage pipes, or spewed from very tall smoke stacks—or even the largest contamination events—can somehow be safely absorbed into the air, sea, and land (i.e. out of sight, out of mind); like we’re safely dispensing of that waste into a compressed-into-nothing black-hole singularity.
    It may be the same mentality that allows the immense amount of plastic waste, such as disposable straws, to eventually find its way into our life-filled oceans, where there are few, if any, caring souls to see it. Indeed, it’s quite fortunate that the plastic waste doesn’t entirely sink out of sight to the bottom, as likely does our Albertan diluted bitumen crude oil (a.k.a. dilbit, the world’s dirtiest oil), for then nothing may be done about it, regardless of divers’ reports of the awful existence of such plastic tangled messes.
    Also, it must be quite convenient for the fossil fuel industry to have such a large portion of mainstream society simply too exhausted and preoccupied with just barely feeding and housing their families on a substandard, if not below the poverty line, income to criticize the former for the great damage it’s doing to our planet’s natural environment and therefore our health, particularly when that damage may not be immediately observable.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News-Medical.Net.
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