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Insights from early COVID-19 responses about promoting sustainable action

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Thijs Bouman, Linda Steg and Thomas Dietz

Early in 2020, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread around the world, disrupting lives and societies. In some places, public responses to COVID-19 were remarkably rapid and forceful, particularly in comparison to global environmental crises. What can we learn from these responses to promote mitigation of global environmental crises? We hypothesize that supportive public responses to COVID-19 were partly promoted by strong personal norms: feeling morally compelled and responsible to act. We discuss what aspects of COVID-19 may have engaged antecedents of personal norms, and how these dynamics could be enhanced in global environmental crises to promote their mitigation.

After its sudden outbreak in late 2019, the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) quickly spread around the world. The virus causes respiratory illness and poses major and immediate health threats, which strongly disrupted individuals’ lives and the functioning of whole societies. The virus spreads through droplets of saliva and discharge from the nose, and transmission can be slowed by strict hygiene practices and limiting social contact1. Such mitigative actions require individual citizens to suddenly change their lifestyles in drastic ways2,3. Based on experiences with global sustainability crises (for example, climate change), such changes seem however improbable to achieve. It could therefore appear that the prospects of society dealing effectively with COVID-19 were rather bleak.

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