Are you keen to be green?

Countering climate change calls for major lifestyle change, says Linda Steg.
How can people be persuaded to make that shift?


Climate change forces us to self-­reflect and causes remorse, since many of the everyday decisions we make as individuals, and as society, influence the pace of global warming. But even when we know the facts, we don’t always make the best choices for the planet. Dutch environmental psychologist Linda Steg argues that the transition to a sustainable society will only succeed if our beliefs, preferences and behaviors are taken into account. 

Why is ­environmental psychology important in countering climate change?

Because ­climate change is not just a technical or ­natural science issue, but also a behavioral one. The way we think, the choices we make, the way we act – all these have major ­implications for climate change and the quality of the environment. But we can also affect environmental quality by more political behavior: by protesting, by boycotting organizations or companies, or by voting for parties that are likely to implement green policies. So, if we can act ­differently and engage more in sustainable behavior, that would help limit climate change. And in fact, many solutions, such as establishing wind parks or nuclear power plants, are difficult to implement if ­people strongly oppose them.

Faced with a problem as big as climate change, isn’t it natural for people to think that their own actions won’t make much difference?

Each individual has a small influence indeed, but as a collective we can have a major one. What we find consistently in research is that the more people care about nature and are aware of their impact on environmental problems, the more they acknowledge that their contribution ­matters – not only through our personal impact but also because we might inspire and motivate others to act. Because ­people are influenced by the behavior of other people around them. For ­example, homeowners are more likely to install solar panels when others in the neighborhood have also done so.

What matters more: the behavior of individuals, or the behavior of governments, corporations and other institutions?

Environmental psychologists used to focus primarily on individual actions. But more and more we acknowledge that behavior is also dependent on choices that other actors make, such as industry or politicians. And these choices are, in the end, also made by individuals. As a result, we are now also looking at what increases the likelihood of companies or politicians taking actions that support or enable people to engage in climate action. Because, in the end, they shape the ­context in which our choices are made.

“People tend to underestimate

the willingness and environmental values of others.”

What will encourage people or organizations to change?

One important thing is that we understand how people perceive the likelihood that others will act. We know from ­individual consumers that they tend to underestimate the willingness and ­environmental values of other people. And that might inhibit their own actions. But the same might happen at different levels, right? Companies might think, yes, I can offer sustainable products, but no one will be willing to buy them. And people might think, well, the companies don’t offer sustainable products, so I can’t do anything. Or a politician might think, I’m not going to implement this policy, because then people will protest, and I won’t get reelected next time. Part of my current research is looking at how decision-making changes when all the actors involved understand how much the others care about climate change, and how willing they are to take action to mitigate it.

What can policymakers do to encourage pro-environmental behavior?

There’s a relatively high potential for ­commitment strategies. For example, asking people to make a pledge or ­promise to act in a certain way, such as a pledge to cycle rather than drive to work. Another impactful strategy could be a bottom-up initiative, such as local energy initiatives. Individuals are more likely to trust and be influenced by people who are like them, and they can demonstrate what ­climate-conscious behavior would look like and point out its ­advantages. Or ­sometimes you just need simple reminders, small prompts such as a sign in the office canteen saying, “why not have a vegetarian meal today?” That works particularly well when ­people already have the will, but don’t always make rational or deliberate decisions because they’re not thinking about it.

What is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and what role do they play in ­changing behavior?

Extrinsic motivation is doing something because you think you’ll be rewarded, or if you don’t, you’ll receive a punishment. It’s the carrot and the stick principle. For example, people may drive less because road pricing is implemented. Intrinsic motivation comes from within, along the lines of, “I do it because it’s important to me, and I care about the environment.” And doing it also makes you feel good. It gives you a warm glow. Sometimes an extrinsic motivator can trigger behavior change and enable people to act on their intrinsic motivation.


Many people care about the environment, meaning they are intrinsically motivated to act. But they don’t always act that way because it can be cumbersome or unattractive. So, our suggestion as environmental psychologists is, if you provide a subsidy or increase the tax on the unwanted behavior and clearly link it to the benefit of the environment, then you can still make the link to the ­intrinsic motivation.

“Making one or two small changes will not do the trick. We need major lifestyle transformation.”

In your recent collaboration for the IPCC report, what kind of behavioral scenario studies have you done?

In the IPCC report, we present studies that try to establish how much climate change can be reduced by looking at changes in demand. If you approach it from the demand side, then theoretically you could reduce overall emissions by 40 to 70 percent compared to the status quo. These are substantial figures, which can be achieved by, for example, switching to sustainable transport options, eating fewer animal-based products, and making our homes more energy-efficient.


To achieve those changes in demand, we may also need to change our systems – transport, infrastructure, financial, social – the context in which we make our choices. Because currently, in many situations, acting pro-environmentally is costly or inconvenient. For example, ­flying is often inexpensive, at least if you book ahead. You can fly from one side of Europe to the other for a few euros. And the train is mostly more expensive, and more cumbersome, because you have to transfer often. The incentives are pointing you in the wrong direction, even if you’re motivated to limit climate change. ­Paying the true price for goods and ­services, including the cost of the pollution involved in their creation, would be one incentive towards climate-friendly behavior. I would make flying more expensive. Meat consumption, too.

How do psychological factors influence our systems?

Systems are influenced by people who make decisions on how the ­system works. I’m now trying to set up research to understand how individuals in influential positions take decisions that affect the choices the rest of us can make. The ­financial ­system is important here: from how the money flows to which behavior becomes attractive in the end. For example, pension funds make investments, and pension funds invest money that we give to them.


One of the conclusions of the IPCC report is that the fossil fuel sector is still ­receiving more investment than the ­renewable energy industry. That implies that we are still stimulating a fossil fuel-based economy rather than a renewable ­energy-based economy. In these cases, the incentives need to change as well.

How can you gain support for change?

What is evident is that people do accept some cost for behaving sustainably, financially and in terms of convenience, as long as the way in which costs and benefits are distributed is transparent and fair. And it is not so much that people want every decision to benefit them directly. They do understand that sometimes there are also other interests at stake. Consulting the public and facilitating their participation in the decision-making process communicates that sense of fairness.

Where do you see future potential for environmental psychology to help individuals become keen to be green?

I’m currently most interested in lifestyle changes, because making one or two small changes will not do the trick. We need major lifestyle transformation, and I want to understand what will motivate people to systematically switch their behavior to low-carbon lifestyles.

Close up portrait of Linda Steg.

About Linda Steg

For more than 25 years, Steg has examined the interactions between people and the environment, with particular focus on how environmentally friendly behavior can be encouraged.

Steg, Professor at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, is one of the authors of the 2022 Sixth Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body assessing the science related to climate change. As a member of IPCC Working Group III, she focuses on climate change mitigation. In 2020, she was awarded the renowned Stevin Prize.

Linda Steg LinkedIn

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