Wednesday, January 29, 2020


Or is it just a case of making us feel like we're doing something to help? (A second big question inspired by school sixth form students.)

Use your voice, use your vote, use your choice.” (Al Gore)

The first point to make is that any early action on reducing CO2 emissions should be considered as having a high per unit premium value for the emissions saved.  Early reduction is more valuable than future savings in terms of postponing key climate milestones.[1]  This delay provides more time to develop options both in finding better means to reduce emissions, and in coping with the consequences of climate change as it develops.  Individual actions have the particular advantage that they can have some effect quickly and immediately, whereas government policies and international agreements tend to take much longer to come into effect.

The more difficult question is what kinds of changes people will make, including changes in lifestyles, are plausible, how large they are, and how many people are going to engage with them. This is in large measure a question about how significant changes come about, both in the very general terms of culture and lifestyle, and in social and behavioural norms.

A few years ago a BBC reporter was persuaded to try the experiment of becoming Ethical Man[2], to determine what savings he, with his family, could make, but these were to be within the bounds of credible change and broadly keeping to his familiar lifestyle. He almost certainly went further than most people will be prepared to (giving up his car for example), but it was estimated that they had cut their carbon footprint by about 20%, and up to 50% in terms of directly controlled energy use for normal household purposes and travel. So it is fairly easy to show that some significant reductions are possible without fundamental and systemic change. But will sufficient numbers of people be persuaded?

Many say we should drive less, fly less, eat less meat. But others argue that personal actions like this are a pointless drop in the ocean when set against the huge systemic changes that are required … a single person’s contribution is basically irrelevant (much like a single vote in an election). But my research … has found that doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as “normal”.  [Steve Westlake in The Conversation.] [3]

Communication is critical.  If one individual starts cycling to work, or eating less meat, or taking a shower instead of a bath, then the impact is minimal. But social interactions with friends, relatives and colleagues can over time change behaviour much more widely. The Westlake article suggests the effects can be dramatic.

In a survey I conducted, half of the respondents who knew someone who has given up flying because of climate change said they fly less because of this example. That alone seemed pretty impressive to me. Furthermore, around three quarters said it had changed their attitudes towards flying and climate change in some way. These effects were increased if a high-profile person had given up flying, such as an academic or someone in the public eye. In this case, around two thirds said they fly less because of this person, and only 7% said it has not affected their attitudes.

I wondered if these impressionable people were already behaving like squeaky-clean environmentalists, but the figures suggested not. The survey respondents fly considerably more than average, meaning they have plenty of potential to fly less because of someone else’s example.

Some social psychology research suggests that strongly held positions held by sufficiently large minorities can lead quite quickly to a change in what is seen as the consensus position or as normal behaviour. It is quite possible that we are currently in the process of reaching that critical mass in popular appreciation of the threats of climate change. Scientists have been warning about climate change in no uncertain terms for at least the last 30 years, but the shift to a position where a majority in developed countries see it as the greatest threat to themselves and their children has been comparatively recent. However it is difficult to say how much of that shift is attributable to dramatic climate or weather related events (such as the Australian bush fires), how much to awareness promoted by wildlife programmes (David Attenborough) and the media attention attracted by activists such as Greta Thunberg, and how much to the gradually increasing willingness of people to talk about the subject with their friends.

If people are seeking to influence others then avoiding the charge of hypocrisy is important. Very few things are less impressive than some celebrity taking a private jet to a conference to argue for everyone else to change their lifestyles. So that provides another strand to the case for individual action, at least if you want to have an influence on others.

Overall it is clear that individual actions can make a difference. But of course they are by no means sufficient to meet what is needed. That will only come about through much more far reaching and systemic changes which depend not just on personal initiatives but on major infrastructure investment and innovation. The other effective actions that individuals can take is to “use their vote”, demand that their elected representatives support effective action, and use their influence as consumers to put similar pressure on business – much of which is already starting to get the message.

[1] The arguments are presented more fully on another page, Cumulative Carbon (button on bar at top of page):

No comments: