Human behaviour drives climate change, but researchers want to know the extent to which climate change can change behaviour.

International researchers have worked out a mathematical model suggesting the rate at which people learn about climate change mitigation - like hearing their friend bought a hybrid or participated in a march - can lead to exaggerated predictions on warming, and people will slowly change their own behaviour in response.

The resulting report suggests that the rate at which people learn about climate mitigation strategies via social interactions strongly influences climate outcomes. But social learning takes time, so plausible values of this rate alone could raise warming predictions by over one degree Celsius.

On the contrary, the model suggests that social norms do not protect against rising temperatures.

They initially act against adoption of mitigation behaviours, even when such efforts are strongly justified by rising temperatures, and they do not significantly speed the transition to an emission-free world once mitigation becomes the norm.

The researchers also ran the model with different parameters to explore how mitigation efforts could be optimised.

“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,” says researcher Thomas Bury of the Universities of Waterloo and Guelph, Canada.

Senior author Madhur Anand states: “There are pathways for humans to mitigate climate change, but processes driving behaviour and norms at the individual and societal level will be essential to all of them, and our longstanding work on coupled human-environment systems applied here to climate change is providing direction in this regard”.