The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to change the way they live and, in the process, cracked open the door to a rare reset opportunity. Behavioral scientists refer to this phenomenon as the “fresh start effect,” where disruptive events act as temporal landmarks, separating past behaviors (and selves) from new, often aspirational ones.

As we tackle another global emergency — the climate crisis — and imagine a world that is more sustainable and more equitable, we have a fleeting window of opportunity to learn from mistakes made during the pandemic. Specifically, we’ve learned with piercing clarity from the COVID-19 crisis the cost of undervaluing the role of human behavior in tackling global emergencies. Indeed, when the outgoing director of the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) was recently asked what the NIH could have done differently in their fight against COVID, he said: Maybe we underinvested in behavioral research.” We should not make the same mistake in the climate crisis.

As we’ve all witnessed, COVID-19 doesn’t exist in a vacuum; the varying responses of individuals, communities and nations to the pandemic have all played a role in the spread of the virus. However, attention has been too narrowly focused on changing the behavior of individuals, rather than the larger context that often determines how individuals behave. People do not live in isolated bubbles of personal choices. Our world is increasingly interconnected and interdependent, and we need to apply behavioral science in ways that respond to that reality.

In addition to continuing to pressure governments and corporations to take crucial climate actions, we must invest in and focus on human behavior in newer and bolder ways. If we don’t, the failure to consider what drives human behavior, and how historical and structural barriers and inequities impact that behavior, will sabotage our fight to protect the planet. One study estimates that household behaviors are responsible for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Behavior change can mean “nudging” these households to modify diets, reduce flights and use energy more efficiently. But it should not stop at individual actions. For example, the food industry can invest in plant-based meat alternatives, employers can institute flight reduction policies, and policymakers and utilities can invest in behaviorally informed billing practices that have been shown to help people decrease their energy use.

That is the goal of a new WRI initiative, The Living Lab for Equitable Climate Action: to show how applying a broader behavioral lens to the climate crisis offers novel solutions. Some of our research begins with a focus on the individual, but our aim is always broader — to push for neighborhoods, workplaces, industry practices and policies that make it easier for people to live healthier, cleaner and more equitable lives.

Here are three things we’ve learned so far:

1. “Reset” Events Can Dramatically Transform Behaviors — and Perceptions

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