In a recent podcast, psychologist/behavioral economist/advertising guru Rory Sutherland outlined what he sees as the most effective strategy of climate change mitigation.

 

In short, Sutherland argues that the only way to persuade people to save the planet is by making climate-friendly behavior “cool.”

That is, people are unlikely to decrease their consumption with the goal of reducing carbon emissions. However, if riding bikes and driving electric cars become fashionable cultural trends, people will adopt them as regular behaviors.

 

But will changing cultural attitudes toward recycling, reusable grocery bags, and fuel efficiency really save the climate?

Norms around fashion and status influence behavior

On one hand, Sutherland offers a deep psychological insight: desire for status might drive behavior more than desire for simple cost savings.

 

Hybrids and electric cars are a clear example. While the Toyota Prius brought consumers cost savings and was a successful product for Toyota, it didn’t cause a cultural shift. Buying a Prius was analogous to sacrificing performance to save money and lower personal emissions.

 

Teslas, on the other hand, are the trendiest cars on the market. Their performance is superior to that of most other automobiles, and they’re just cool. The fact that they also happen to be climate-friendly is just a bonus. 

 

Now, I’m not arguing that everyone will own a Tesla in five years. They’re pretty expensive. But we can already see other automakers reacting to the Tesla phenomenon by developing similar lines of electric vehicles.

 

If the cultural shift around Tesla eventually leads to drastically lower carbon emissions without reducing miles driven, that would be a glorious development.

What are the sources of GHG emissions?

However, I think Sutherland’s argument is a bit misleading. It assumes that changing our consumption behavior will save the planet. Yet, as I’ve argued before, personal behavioral change won’t be sufficient to solve climate change. To make the point more concretely, let’s look at the contributors to global warming (source: IPCC).

  • Energy systems (35% of global GHG emissions) 
  • Transportation (23% of GHG emissions)
  • Industry (mineral extraction and manufacturing), buildings, and land usage are the other large contributors (isolating the percentage contributions from the other sectors is a bit more complicated, so I’ll leave them out)

 

There exist several methods to reduce emissions in energy systems, including energy efficiency improvements, improvements in fuel extraction efficiency, increased share of renewables, investments in transmission, increasing nuclear, CCS, and carbon taxes.

 

Emissions in transportation can be reduced by avoiding journeys through urban density, remote activities via internet, increased public transit options, cities built for walking and biking, lowering vehicle weight, EVs, and increasing passenger per vehicle.

 

For all three remaining sectors, technological development is basically the sole mitigation option, aside from reducing animal product consumption.

Which GHG reduction strategies can we achieve through cultural shifts?

So, which of these mitigation options can we make “cool”?

 

Well, as we’ve identified, increased EV adoption as well as changing other transportation habits are candidates. But even in the transportation sector, all of these changes require top-down changes. EVs need charging infrastructure, increased public transit use requires a sufficiently saturated public transit infrastructure, and increased bike ridership requires a rethinking of road usage along with a cultural shift. Even if all that happens, everywhere in the world (!), you’ve only made a small dent in the problem. 

 

What about the other sectors?

 

Making the energy system greener generally requires regulatory mandates or investments from firms rather than behavioral change. Even household investment in solar panels has historically been driven by government incentives. The same can be said for industry, buildings, and land usage – technological progress is going to require top-down investment.

The solution: save the climate with your vote

To be fair to Sutherland, his answer wasn’t as problematic as the question itself. The interviewer asked a behavioral economist how methods of persuasion can be leveraged to solve climate change.

 

They can’t.

 

At least not in the sense that ordinary people can be nudged into significantly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

 

To be clear, I would be elated if climate-friendly behavior became the norm due to cultural trends. But I’m not so enthusiastic as to believe these small changes are going to solve global warming.

 

Probably the most effective thing ordinary people can do is vote for legislators that are 1) well-informed on climate and 2) offer feasible solutions (such as investment in clean tech) to effectively attack the problem.

 

Look through that list of measures to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is that top-down policies are necessary to do it.

 

And if we have to make something “cool,” make it cool to vote for politicians who are serious about climate change.