An ant trail to climate change reduction

Nowadays, we understand climate change as a global threat, hence a global responsibility– due to the perception of an interconnected environment. [12] Indeed, the impacts of climate change can be reduced if agents on all levels of society (e.g. individuals, neighborhoods, businesses, municipalities, governments) work jointly on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. [1] But is it possible that enough people will take part?


The issue is enormous, and far beyond the capacity of any human being to tackle. This could make individuals feel powerless to act, because their individual contribution in itself will not make much of a difference. Perhaps we can learn from a species that approaches and completes tasks vital for their survival in extraordinary unity: Ants.


“Perhaps we can learn from a species that approaches and completes tasks vital for their survival in extraordinary unity: Ants.”


What makes ants master cooperation on this scale? How do ants manage to disassemble a food source that is dozens of times larger than any single ant? By means of pheromone trails. When a forager ant finds a food source, it carries the food back to the colony piece by piece, and while doing so, the ant leaves a pheromone trail. This trail becomes more intense each time the ant walks the trail to carry the food. Eventually, other ants will sense the intense pheromone trail and join the forager ant in its task – thus intensifying the pheromone trail. Soon there will be hundreds of ants walking down the trail, carrying food until the food source is depleted. [2] There are even more impressive tasks that ants perform by using pheromone trails, to get others to join. Some ants bend a number of leaves together to build nests the size of a human’s head. Furthermore, in some cases they chain their bodies together to bridge the gap between leaves in order to pull them together. Hundreds of ants are engaged in this task! [2]


Clearly, ants are not daunted by the size of a task or job, and perhaps this is something we could learn from. How could we get enough humans to work together to protect something the size of a planet? Humans do not use pheromone trails to motivate others to join their cause (at least not that I heard of). But, among other things, we use social norms. Social norms are ‘‘rules and standards that are understood by members of a group, and that guide and/or constrain human behaviour’’.[3] This means that we use social norms to detect the latest dos or don’ts in our surroundings. As such, social norms can guide us like pheromone trails.


“Clearly, ants are not daunted by the size of a task or job, and perhaps this is something we could learn from.”


The literature distinguishes two kinds of social norms: Descriptive and injunctive norms. Descriptive norms inform us about what others commonly do in a given situation (e.g. performing a handshake with the right hand). Injunctive norms inform us about what people ought to do in a given situation (e.g. stopping at a red traffic light).


These norms could drive our behavior in multiple directions with regard to climate change. So, on the one hand, we might increase our greenhouse gas emissions because descriptive and injunctive norms inform us that successful and happy people (ought to) have bigger houses, more cars, and consume certain goods.[4] On the other hand, if enough people demonstrate their commitment in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by adopting carbon-free lifestyles and supporting pro-environmental policies, other people will follow.[5] Likewise, each additional ant on the pheromone trail to a food source makes it easier to ‘persuade’ nearby ants to also enlist.


“Ultimately, it takes individual humans and ants to reach a critical mass for human and ant trails to commence and persevere.”


Ultimately, it takes individual humans and ants to reach a critical mass for human and ant trails to commence and persevere. A meta-analysis by Abrahamse and Steg (2013)[6] suggests that people who volunteer to influence their networks (i.e. block leaders) to reduce their resource consumption can effectively encourage others to do so as well. Sometimes this could spread to adjacent neighborhoods: For example, a study in California showed that the installation of a solar panel in a given zip code area increases the likelihood of further adoptions.[7] Eventually, pro-environmental attitudes and norms might reach governance. As one study suggests, having more environmentally-friendly politicians within a state may reduce state-level GHG-emissions.[8] Arguably, the role of individuals via social norms and networks at the neighborhood and governmental level might be crudely extrapolating – but what if individuals can have an accumulative impact, spiraling to different levels of society?


“What if individuals can have an accumulative impact, spiraling to different levels of society?”


However, we frequently observe that the accumulative impact to climate change reduction is hampered due to various groups and individuals differing in their concern about climate change and their attitudes toward proposed solutions.[9,10] Ants have to deal with group/tribal conflict too, but they can only deal with it via aggression and conquest. [2] Fortunately, humans have a lot more non-aggressive means of dealing with social conflict than ants. Imagine a person with pro-environmental attitudes being member of a group that is known to be resistant to pro-environmental reforms or engagement. He or she could, with enough perseverance and time, influence the group’s norms and open them up for a change of heart[11], or at least he/she could influence oneperson in the group. Here again, the individual and the collective influence each other.


Instead of attending to our individual contribution in itself, we could consider our contribution to climate change reduction in the extent to which we contribute to the social norm trail. Scientists could put effort in assessing and demonstrating the web of influence from the individual to the international – and vice versa. Policymakers need to translate this into fair contracts. If we start seeing each other as interdependent agents on a planetary level, rather than as individual consumers making individual decisions, we might manage to form an ‘ant trail’ to keep climate change below 1.5°C.



Image credit: Image by Tworkowsky on Pixabay



1 IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P. R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva.

2 Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1994). Journey to the ants: a story of scientific exploration. Harvard University Press.

3 Cialdini, R. B., & Trost, M. R. (1998). Social influence: Social norms, conformity and compliance. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 151-192). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

4 Eisenstein, M. (2017). How social scientists can help to shape climate policy. Nature, 551, 142-144.

5 Nyborg, K., Anderies, J. M., Dannenberg, A., Lindahl, T., Schill, C., Schlüter, M., … & Chapin, F. S. (2016). Social norms as solutions. Science, 354(6308), 42-43.

6 Abrahamse, W., & Steg, L. (2013). Social influence approaches to encourage resource conservation: A meta-analysis. Global environmental change, 23(6), 1773-1785.

7 Bollinger, B., & Gillingham, K. (2012). Peer effects in the diffusion of solar photovoltaic panels. Marketing Science, 31(6), 900-912.

8 Dietz, T., Frank, K. A., Whitley, C. T., Kelly, J., & Kelly, R. (2015). Political influences on greenhouse gas emissions from US states. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201417806.

9 Campbell, T. H., & Kay, A. C. (2014). Solution aversion: On the relation between ideology and motivated disbelief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(5), 809.

10  Pearson, A. R., & Schuldt, J. P. (2018). Climate change and intergroup relations: Psychological insights, synergies, and future prospects. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(3), 373–388.

11 Benegal, S. D., & Scruggs, L. A. (2018). Correcting misinformation about climate change: the impact of partisanship in an experimental setting. Climatic Change, 148(1-2), 61-80.

12 Warde, P., Robin, L., & Sörlin, S. (2018). The Environment: A History of the Idea. JHU Press.

Vladimir Bojarskich on Linkedin

Vladimir is a research master student in behavioural and social sciences at the University of Groningen. He is interested in the socio-psychological aspects of climate change mitigation, adaptation and environmental protection. Feel free to contact him for any feedback, or interest in collaboration, via

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