When Earth Day was first celebrated 45 years ago, it helped inspire big solutions to a daunting domestic agenda to fix significantly impaired air and water. It led to the 1992 United Nations' Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro which put climate change on the world’s agenda. The U.S. and the world seemed prepared to think — and act — big.

For climate change, we need to think big and small.

"Big" includes new technology and renewable energy substituting for fossil fuels. It means global agreements that assure all countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It means ambitious new legislation along the brave path forged by the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

"Small" recognizes that all the above will not be enough.

Climate change is about how people use energy 24/7, largely on personal auto-pilot. Moment by moment, each of us makes decisions to drive rather than walk to the corner or to leave our computers on when we sleep. The list of death by a thousand paper-cuts goes on and on.

Looking only at individuals and the household sector psychologist Amanda Carrico and her colleagues estimate they account for roughly 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and a comparable percentage of total U.S. energy consumption — presenting a major reduction opportu­nity.

Much of our daily actions are a function of what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls "thinking fast." That is, even if we care about the carbon consequences, we routinely take the instinctive, easiest-course-of-action pathway. Habits silently sabotage our better intentions. Psychology and behavioral economics research offers antidotes. Small changes to our daily habits and adapting technology to counter our "default behaviors" can have as significant of an impact to reduce energy use as major legislation or fuel shifts and be more timely. 

Widening our lens to capture more "solutions" to this very big challenge includes finding constructive ways to change those countless habits deployed by millions of people that add up to a lot of energy consumption.

The ideas are there. The challenge is to demonstrate in scaled-up real world settings the practical application and utility of concepts initially developed and tested in lab and limited field settings. They have already been put to work to improve retirement savings and health care choices. Why not harness those ideas to help make energy savings, in the words of energy expert Daniel Yergin, the "first fuel"?

There are, already, a few examples that prove the case. OPower — a deliberately small bore approach, which helps people achieve energy savings by providing information on how their usage compares to their neighbors –— builds on the research of Arizona State's Bob Cialdini. Cialdini is a leader in thinking about social norms, the informal understandings that govern individuals' behavior in society. OPower aims to pick off the easy 2-3 percent energy savings in the residential electricity use sector. Its own executives recognize that they aren't "trying to spark a wholesale paradigm."

OPower is a social psychology theory scaled up into a company recently valued at $1 billion. Thousands of OPowers can be transformative.

A man adjusts a Nest thermostat

More than half of programmable thermostats in U.S. homes are never programmed. Instead, they are left in "hold" mode, never achieving their purpose of helping owners control their home energy usage. (Photo: George Frey/Getty Images)

Marrying behavioral knowledge with technology development is another promising area. Think about older home thermostats versus the Nest. Longstanding research shows that more than half of programmable thermostats in U.S. homes are never programmed; they are left in the hold mode. The Nest takes the easier pathway by interacting with its owner and learning how best to serve her energy needs. 

Or consider an even lower-tech solution — the card key most European hotels have used for years. It turns on the electrical systems in your room when you are present, and turns them off when you are away.

The details are really the point for managing climate change. There is no single way to re-motivate how humans use the energy which is tangled into every part of everyone's life, no revolution to be had. OPower demonstrates the strength of modesty about what can be achieved, working with willing partners and delivering results.

We are working with the U.S. Navy to learn how a behavioral component can speed Navy's strategic objective of energy efficiency toward more effective warfighting. The Marines have learned that ending idling of trucks in war-games saves fuel and also extends their reach when they are ready to move.

While the Navy's energy efficiency objectives are inherently compelling, adding value to their essential responsibility protecting the American public, an additional consequence of this partnership lies in leveraging the Department of Defense's historic role as an energy innovator. Technology and "soft" approaches, once proven, are routinely further scaled up and replicated in a wide variety of other, non-military business and organizational contexts. The evidence obtained through Navy's tests will be compelling.

It's good that solar is going on roof tops; windfarms connected to the grid; hybrid and electric cars starting to substitute for conventional ones; and that it's chic and good business to locate in a LEED certified building. But the next step is to ask whether we always need to get into that car or keep the lights burning – and to look constructively at alternatives.

On Earth Day, let's think small. 

Ruth Greenspan Bell is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Elke U. Weber is the Jerome A. Chazen professor of international business and professor of management and psychology and Earth Institute professor at Columbia University. 

This story was originally published on Environmental Health News and was republished with permission here.

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Climate change is about how people use energy 24/7, largely on personal auto-pilot.