Ideally, people would care about the catastrophic potential of global warming.
Ideally, people would act on what they say they believe.
Polling data indicate that people care about climate change. According to a 2018 survey, 61% of Americans say that the US government should be doing “a lot more” to combat climate change. “A lot more”. So that means they’re willing to pay a lot more, right? Give up a lot more? In economic terms, these ideas are synonymous.
But if you dig through that survey a bit further, you’ll find the following sentence:
“That said, three-quarters of Americans express concern that efforts to address the issue will raise prices on things they buy and just two in 10 are very confident that those efforts in fact would reduce global warming.”
So we’re back to square one. Global warming: big problem. But people don’t want to change their behavior to solve it.
Some believe that climate activism can encourage others to go green. Here’s why that’s misguided.
Most attempts at climate activism are ineffective
By climate activism, I’m referring to two concepts in particular:
- Online activism: Facebook and Twitter posts that encourage going green, or worse, merely show the poster going green in a “candid” photo, represent the worst sort of activism. Online climate activism of this sort is nothing more than a signalling tool. Just like when a guy decides to become a vegan to impress a girl, online climate activists signal that they’re green to acquire that sweet internet karma. The guy’s friends know he’s not being genuine, and the online activist’s readers see right through him.
- “Global” activism: public protests and gatherings that call attention to the dangers of global warming on a big stage are what I call global activism. Like online activism, these are mostly big echo chambers (at least when it comes to effecting behavioral change). While these movements can be useful in changing climate policy, they don’t have a great record of convincing ordinary people to reduce their carbon emissions. Case in point: the “Fridays for Future” movement in Europe. Has it started national conversations about climate policy and culture? Yes. Might it lead to actual policy changes? Yes. Has it directly changed people’s behavior? I would argue it hasn’t, at least on a level that makes a meaningful difference.
These are the most common forms of climate activism, and they’re mostly ineffectual when it comes to behavioral change.
Does public shaming work?
Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg has effectively made shaming people about air travel part of her agenda. If it ultimately works, that’s amazing; air travel is a significant contributor to climate change.
But here’s the thing: so far, only the activists have decided to change their behavior. From that linked article:
“It’s not just Sweden; environmental activists, scientists who study the climate, and ordinary people in other countries like Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States are curbing their air travel, if not giving it up outright.
However, the growing global alarm about the environmental impacts of aviation comes as air travel continues to rise and airlines report record demand for flights.“
This is not a knock on Greta Thunberg. She’s an inspiration, and I believe her work will lead to serious climate policy change, just not behavioral change or a meaningful cultural shift. This is why we need climate policy in the first place.
What probably works: showing people their peers care about the climate
It’s important to think of the issue of behavioral change in terms of first order vs. second order effects. As social animals, we might not actually care about saving the planet (first order). See the study in the intro for proof. Instead, we care about what other people think about saving the planet (second order) and adjust our behavior in order to fit in. In short, it’s evolutionarily advantageous to follow the crowd because being part of a group provides myriad benefits.
People might strategically say they want to reduce carbon emissions in order to signal their ethical credentials. But in reality, when the question or curbing emissions is formulated in financial terms, their answer indicates they care more about other things. Human behavior in the western world, which has led to consistently rising atmospheric CO2 levels in recent years, reveals that people don’t factor the climate into their daily lives.
However, climate activism might work if it were locally focused. In other words, if your peers are green, you are more likely to be green too. Ultimately, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.
So cultivating a “greener” community, or just leading by example, might be the most effective way of changing behavior.
The problem: that’s not a scalable solution
As you might have realized, encouraging your own peer group to go green won’t make much of a dent in a global problem like climate change.
And once you start brainstorming top-down methods to encourage larger groups to change their behavior, you’re back to the type of climate activism that doesn’t work.
To summarize so far:
- Online, vapid climate activism doesn’t work.
- Global climate activism is only marginally more effective.
- Leading your peers by example is the most persuasive method, but it’s not scalable.
The solution is technological progress
If people don’t want to spend money to combat climate change, and bottom-up approaches to behavioral change are not enough, maybe we shouldn’t focus on behavioral change at all.
The bottom line is that the only way people will decrease their carbon emissions is via the emergence of cheap, clean technology.
There are some promising signs on this front. For example, some studies indicate that China’s emissions may peak 10 years prior to its Paris Agreement pledge. The reason? A push to improve local air quality and massive investments in renewables.
Maybe even more encouraging is the ever increasing list of entities divesting from oil and gas companies. Investment is consistently being driven away from polluting industries and towards cleaner ones.
As you might have noticed, technological change doesn’t require behavioral change. If, for example, long-range, fast-charging electric cars fuelled by a low-carbon grid rapidly become the norm, we can greatly reduce emissions without reducing our mileage on the road.
This is why I ultimately believe the most pragmatic solution to climate change is a huge, multinational investment in clean tech research.
I’m talking about an investment in green energy research with the urgency and scale of the Manhattan Project.
If we could figure out how to store intermittently generated electricity at scale, or develop safe, modern nuclear generation capabilities, we wouldn’t have to change our behavior. More importantly, emerging economies could keep increasing energy consumption while controlling carbon emissions.
Clearly, this will be costly in the early stages; you don’t get technological change without paying for it. But if we end up in a place where the world’s poorest populations can become wealthier without harming the planet, that’s a win-win.
In the meantime, engage in climate activism at your own risk.