Given it is human activity that is responsible for global warming, is it right that we should feel guilty for the effects we are now seeing?
The ravaging effects of global warming are hard to escape in many parts of the globe, with weather conditions having huge impacts on many people’s lives. At the same time, many of us are also going on holiday, driving large cars, eating meat and so on – all the things that are well documented as contributing to exactly this effect.
As we continue living in this way and expanding our consumption, feelings of guilt can easily seep in, which are rapidly internalised. For example, should we really be flying off on holiday when we can see how this is directly related to the environmental catastrophe unfolding around us?
As drought is declared across much of the UK, we take a behavioural science lens to unpack these tricky and divisive issues.
Making do with ‘less’?
Much of the environmental movement in its current form is dominated by the notion that better outcomes are arrived at through individual consumer choices. Indeed, we can see this in the way that 74% of the population (across 31 countries) consider that individuals have a responsibility to reduce carbon emissions. The implication that people need to make changes to their own lifestyle is clear.
Indeed, much what we might call ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ places modern lifestyles as the primary driver of ecological problems. This of course results in appeals for us all to live in a more simple manner and consume less. However, the current cost of living crisis means that many people are most concerned about rising energy prices and the ability to feed themselves and their family. Against this backdrop, the message of ‘making do with less’ to reduce carbon emissions is hardly going to appeal, for example, to the 47% of Britons that Ipsos identified as potentially vulnerable in their ability to pay the rent or meet their mortgage repayments.
Am I to blame?
Indeed, polling has found climate change slipping down the list of concerns, with issues such as inflation and poverty & social inequality now at the top. Given the existential threat of global warming, it is understandable why some may consider this seems irrational. But on the other hand, given so much of the population are struggling with the basics of life, then if tackling global warming means accepting further austerity, it is easy to see why climate change it is not top of everyone’s concerns.
In a similar vein, a ‘de-growth’ agenda is proving popular among some activists and economists. While proponents may insist this is not about the politics of ‘less’ given they are calling for the redistribution of less stuff more equally, it still fails to take into account that vast swathes of the population actually need material growth, not de-growth. While the notion of ‘less’ is one that those with the ability to absorb this into their lifestyle might get behind, it is hardly a rallying cry for those already struggling.
The ecological footprint approach to tackling global warming seems, all too often, to blame all consumers for the ecological crisis; there is little nuance concerning the way that many people actually have extremely low carbon footprints.
Is education the answer?
There continues to be a demand to educate the public about the dangers we face: take this from New Scientist:
“Never has the need for a public information campaign been so great, not only to educate people about the true nature of the climate breakdown threat, but also to flag what they can do to mitigate its impact.”
It is understandable why the conversation about climate change situates knowledge and science at its core. Indeed this is how climate politics is typically discussed — as a confrontation between those who ‘believe’ and those who ‘deny’ the science. Those who align themselves with the science often consider the deep interrelations between our lifestyle and the biosphere, with the assumption that if only people knew about this then they we would surely understand the need for limitation in lifestyles.
But given the points made, we can see that appeals to education may simply not cut it: what point is there of letting people know about the effects of actions on climate change when there is little, if anything, that they can do given the precarity of their lives? Is this in fact a concern of the affluent professional class who typically see education as the answer to the world’s problems, given it is the core way in which change happens for them, delivering career and financial security.
Where might this be heading?
We can see how the debate about climate change is such that we are often asked to be educated, using it to consider the choices that we make in our everyday lives. While we cannot simply ignore the actions of those able to drive SUVs, eat meat and fly excessively, the danger is that this continues to ensure the debate is framed around consumption choices. In this way it alienates much of the population who have very limited, if any, such choices.
These differences become increasingly apparent as the effects of global warming kick in, with reference points being created. For example, we can now more easily understand the impacts of climate change on those who can afford air conditioning versus those that swelter in high rise blocks. And in a different context, there are reference points in the current debate relating to the way many people are unable to afford rising energy bills, whilst energy companies pay dividends to shareholders from their significant profits.
This latter type of reference point is important given polling indicates the public (worldwide) consider that while individuals have a responsibility to tackle carbon emissions, a very similar percentage consider that governments (77%) and businesses (76%) also have responsibility.
This has potential to rapidly reframe the issue away from a notion of interrelations between our own lifestyles and the biosphere, and instead towards a comparison of reference points about the relative degree of power and control over carbon emissions. This potentially pits much of the population not only against more affluent groups in society but also governments and brands.
If the increasingly harsh impacts of climate change mean that people are able to make these comparisons more easily, then perceptions of social justice emerge. If something is perceived as unfair, this creates resentment, a powerful emotion which is much more likely to drive behaviours than education. Seamus Power points out that this is a key way in which people are then energised to participate in demonstrations, democratic engagement, and social change. And indeed behavioural scientists have written about the possibilities of anger shaping a response to these sort of disparities.
Of course, many organisations and governments have taken steps to deliver on carbon reduction through initiatives such as Net Zero and alignment with the UN Sustainable Development goals. We can, however, expect these organisations and governments to be subject to ever greater scrutiny and reputational risk. Why? We can see that the conditions may well be set for people to move from an educational framing of the issues, concerning the inter-relationality of their lifestyles to the biosphere, and move towards a ‘reference point’ framing, that focuses on the disparities concerning sources of carbon emission. In this environment, there may be even more activism directed toward more affluent segments in society but also in relation to industry and government with campaigns such as ‘Can’t pay won’t pay’ becoming a common feature of the consumer landscape.
The climate crisis is centred upon sectors vital to all of our lives — food, energy, transport. If the degree of change needed is to become one which has sufficiently broad appeal to remain at the top of people’s concerns, then it surely cannot rely on austerity, guilt, and individualistic solutions. It also cannot place so much emphasis on education of the science being at the heart of a solution (belief or denial).
This is where moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’ again offers opportunities for rapid change, such as we saw in the collective response to COVID. We all have basic needs, so instead of seeing these as ‘footprints’ there is surely value in acknowledging that the majority of people need greater and more secure access to these basics. The current cost of living crisis is making that abundantly clear, if there was ever any doubt.
We then shift the focus from consumer choices through to an examination of these reference points – if we are to make changes then, just as with COVID, identifying the sources of risk (carbon emissions) and finding ways to mitigate them is critical. We often cite Stephen Reicher, a long-time supporter of the ‘we’ perspective who, we suspect, would point out that we are effective in working together as groups to make sense of our world and together find ways to cope with the challenges we face. This analysis of the challenge suggests this requires some fundamental changes in the way the climate crisis is articulated and understood.
It is worth ending on the note that is a desire for positive movement with developments such as ‘Not too late’ that encourages people to get involved and act so we can prevent the worse impacts of the climate crisis.
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