As humans, we are naturally risk-averse. Whether crossing the road, going somewhere new, saving a document 1000 times (just to be sure) or any form of “the unknown’, as a species we are evolutionarily motivated to avoid threats.
Perhaps surprisingly, we do not have the same self-preservation instinct when it comes to climate change. Three years ago, when the United Nations said that we are set to face serious consequences in the next 25 years if we didn’t buck up our ideas and radically cut carbon emissions, I felt a sense of hope, which was simultaneously met with a sense of pessimistic dread towards the large-scale shifting global behaviours that this would have required. Now, after countless protests, a global pandemic, and greenwashing galore, it does not feel like much has changed.
This week marked the beginning of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, and despite 25 previous attempts, substantial change does not seem likely. We know that governments are making nowhere near enough progress to cut carbon emissions at the scale and pace needed to meet the Paris climate agreement’s goal of stopping global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C. In 2009, wealthy nations promised to mobilise US$100bn a year by 2020 to help poorer nations adapt to rising temperatures and to acquire technologies necessary to cut their own emissions. The latest estimates put us US$20bn short of that pledge.
This failure highlights the consistent issues that arise when governments and corporations make lofty promises. Set, miss, repeat. This is because green promises receive good press, but in reality, making them a reality is expensive, and money talks. Unless they are held to account, big players will continue to move the goalposts and no progress will be made.
If carbon emissions remain steady, the catastrophic environmental events that we saw this year will become more frequent. Climate-fuelled disasters, such as droughts, floods, wildfires, heatwaves, and hurricanes have become regular occurrences across the world. Somehow, we seem to have universally agreed that polluting is bad and yet, it’s free to do. The current situation is critical. On the one hand, there is increased awareness and acknowledgement of climate change, but we are yet to see any significant action being taken.
Derailing & Delaying Change
We have long known what individuals can do to save the planet, such as eating less meat, carsharing, taking public transportation, and cutting down on flights. But the truth is that most people take a largely passive attitude towards climate change. Like lobsters slowly boiling to death, we do not seem to be taking the warning signs seriously, despite their increased frequency.
Many sceptics argue that individual behavioural changes are futile as 70% of the world’s carbon emissions can be traced back to 100 companies. To make matters worse, these companies have known about climate change for decades, but rather than work to address it they have buried the science and continued business as usual. Climate change sceptics are victims of the denial machine, consisting of coordinated campaigns to undermine public trust in climate science organised by industrial, political and ideological interests to engender uncertainty about climate change.
Many express fears about climate change, but rarely prioritise the problem. In parallel, we have witnessed a recent rise in climate anxiety amongst young people and the sense of betrayal by their governments has never been more evident. Depressingly, although 69% of Americans want “aggressive” action to combat climate change, only 1/3 are willing to pay an extra US$100 to make it happen. People recognise that there is a problem, but do not see it as their job to fix it.
Fixing it does not feel easy for most people. Price and convenience often dictate our lives and acting outside of the natural instincts to save and live easy are hard to navigate. If it costs substantially more to buy sustainably, or the process of recycling or avoiding single-use plastic is too arduous, most people will opt-out. And shaming individuals never works to alter behaviour in the long term. Thus, realistic alternatives need to be designed, promoted, and implemented if we expect people to adopt them into their routines.
On top of this, even where people do make the effort to change their lifestyles, the majority of people are unable to identify the most effective lifestyle decisions in terms of limiting their carbon footprint. Research shows that while the environmental crisis we face is on people’s minds , the vast majority of people remain confused about what they should be doing to create actual impact. The public has got the impression recycling is key to create change, but in reality this is relatively insignificant when compared with the larger changes to lifestyles needed.
Global economies do not regularly impose a price on pollution, meaning that shopping sustainably is still a matter of consumer choice. The ability to easily change one’s lifestyle to support the good of the planet is an incredibly privileged position that not everyone can take. The economic accessibility of plant-based diets, sustainable clothing, and readily available public transport are rarer than some might believe, and people should not be vilified for simply being the victims of food apartheid, poor infrastructure, or completely broken economic systems.
On top of this, consumer attitudes towards climate change have been warped and heavily influenced for some time by effective and targeted campaigns from big polluters. There is a long history of industry-funded “deflection campaigns” from the big oil and gas companies. First denying climate change, and then once the reality became too much to ignore they diverted attention and blame towards individuals. BP, with the help of Ogilvy & Mather, actually coined, promoted and popularised the term “carbon footprint” to convince people that climate change was the result of their individual actions. It is in their interest that individuals to be seen as the key to the climate crisis.
What Does This Mean For Me?
Personal change in lifestyle for the good of the planet is one of the great moral challenges of the 21st Century. As individuals, we would not choose to destroy the crops of farmers in Africa, but in reality, this is the consequence of our current behaviour. We cannot escape the moral obligation to act and not cause harm, even if each of us only plays a small part.
Despite the emergency we are presented with, many people continue to refuse to change, to get behind the cause, and to lead lower-carbon lifestyles. This is in large part because people are naturally creatures of habit, and it takes a lot of effort and input to erode a habit. Humans are constantly looking to others for guidance on how to behave. With climate change, we aren’t getting the necessary cues we need to persuade us to act. However, all is not lost. If people need cues to change their behaviour all we need is for people to start acting and others should follow. Our actions may not be important because of the direct effect we individually have on the environment, but because of the message that our actions carry.
The climate catastrophe can feel far away for most of us. Just another uncertain part of the future. Construal level theory says that the more psychologically distant something is from us (whether that be in time, space, or social distance), the more abstract it will be thought of, while the closer it is, the more concretely it will be thought of. We see this psychological reasoning when people excuse acts of war or natural disasters, and in general attitudes of othering. This explains why people are able to treat the effects of climate change as uncertain or even deniable threats. However, this will result in us all slowly witnessing the effects of climate change on others through our phone screens until we look up and realise it is happening here and now.
Acting on climate change represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term rewards. As people, we prioritise short-term benefits before long-term benefits. Ignoring climate change in the short-term has benefited both individuals and organisations. Individuals do not have to change the cars they drive, the products they buy, or the homes they live in if they ignore the influence their carbon footprint has in the long run. Companies can keep costs low and profits high if they don’t have to create new processes to limit carbon emissions. Governments can save money today by generating power through combustion rather than investing in green energy.
This means that we need to bring the future mentally closer so that people will confront the well-studied impact of climate change head-on and implement real change. We need people to see how climate change will disrupt their day-to-day. Seeing these threats in the present will help to motivate effective behavioural change.
Is Carbon Pricing The Answer?
Lifestyle changes alone are not enough to save the planet. To get the infamous 100 biggest polluters to change the way they do business we need to put a standard price on carbon emissions. Making it expensive to use fossil fuels could change behaviour quickly if there are easy and cheap alternatives available. Carbon pricing utilises the power of the market to incentivise emissions reductions. Previously, it was argued that carbon pricing would push people to cleaner gas over dirtier coal due to the lack of economical renewable alternatives. However, over the past decade, the costs of wind and solar power have fallen drastically.
Currently, just over 20% of global emissions are subject to a carbon pricing scheme, and the prices in these plans are too low. To meet the promises of the Paris Climate Agreement, we would need to price emissions at US$40–80 per tonne. Currently, the average is only US$15. Nowhere in the world is there a carbon price that is both above $40 and applicable to more than half a country’s emissions.
It is also worth noting that cost has less influence on behaviour when there are few alternatives. A 2018 study of rich countries, found that in 80% of the countries surveyed at least 90% of road transport emissions incurred taxes equivalent to a carbon price of more than €60 per tonne. Yet in the absence of readily available alternatives, many people pay these taxes and continue to drive often. In theory, carbon pricing will encourage the development of competitive alternatives, but only if investors believe that the carbon price will be high enough in the future to make this worthwhile.
In theory, companies faced with carbon pricing will invest in the development of not yet competitive alternatives, but only if they believe that the carbon price will be high enough in the future to make this worthwhile.
However, as it stands there are no cheap alternatives. Renewable energy is no cheaper than traditional fossil fuels once you factor in investment and storage costs. The only way to incentivise this shift is to make fossil fuels costlier, and convincing people that carbon pricing is the right way to go about this will not be simple. On the whole, society will bear the brunt of these extra costs, and for most people, given what we know about attitudes to change in behaviour, this will be an uphill battle to say the least.
As previously noted, individual actions are important, and something to be championed, but focusing on individual choices raises the risk of losing sight of the real issue; civilisation’s complete reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport, which account for roughly 2/3 of global carbon emissions.
Without feasible alternatives, regulations, and top-down guidance we will not see the meaningful change required. Constantly, consumers are being sold “solutions” that do not have any real impact but ease their collective consciousness. Entire business models need to change. It is difficult to convince a retailer that in fact, people should probably be buying less.
Sustainability needs to be monetised. Not for the benefit of greenwashing retailers, but to drive sustainable investment. Carbon emissions need to be accounted for in the calculation of profits to drive use of renewable energy and reducing consumption. By putting a standardised price on carbon, people can actually make money by reducing emissions, selling their services to corporations that are always looking for ways to cut costs.
If COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s that we are capable of responding to global threats with urgency. We need the same determination and willpower when it comes to the future of our planet.