Individuals and climate change

Governments need to take climate change seriously. But if they do, is there anything left for the rest of us?

Being an ordinary person concerned with climate change can be pretty demoralising. What can you do to make a difference? Individual lifestyle changes are hard work – and then you watch oil companies spilling millions of gallons of oil into the sea, the global hyper-rich zooming around on private jets, the Amazon being deforested at a record rate, and countless other depressing actions that seem to mock our own attempts to live more sustainably. You might be forgiven for thinking: “what’s the point?”

Hypocrisy isn’t the only issue. Many of the problems preventing us from cutting our collective carbon emissions significantly are technological in nature. Try as we might, us ordinary folk aren’t likely to come up with a new fertiliser technology or source of renewable energy. As Bill Gates says:

“…we need innovation that gives us energy that’s cheaper than today’s hydrocarbon energy, that has zero CO2 emissions, and that’s as reliable as today’s overall energy system. And when you put all those requirements together, we need an energy miracle.”

That it will require a miracle doesn’t mean it’s impossible, of course. As Gates himself says, “in science, miracles are happening all the time”. There’s no reason to be despondent. But achieving it will require an enormous, eye-watering amount of investment in specialist research. That means a role for government, in providing a productive regulatory environment and billions upon billions in funding; it means a role for universities, in conducting pioneering research; it means a role for startups and the private sector, in productising and scaling new technologies.

If you think in these terms, it’s easy to imagine climate change being fought entirely by bureaucratic heroes, a few thousand people behind the scenes in places of high leverage, able to influence policy changes and technology research, quietly getting on with the business of fixing the world. This technocratic solution, in which the solution is arrived at by a few enlightened wonks, doesn’t leave much for a broader mass of individuals to do.

Many people make the leap from this point to concluding that individual action is pointless and that individuals don’t have the power to make a difference. Some approach that from an almost conspiracist angle: “the big polluters’ masterstroke,” a George Monbiot column reads, “was to blame the crisis on you and me.” Some make the claim that only 100 companies are responsible for most emissions in recent human history – in which case, of course, any individual actions are just a drop in the inexorably rising ocean. Others bemoan the unrealistic lifestyle constraints that climate activists expect humanity to endure, such as Venkatesh Rao:

“There is an annoying kind of climate activist whose shtick is to constantly tweet stuff like ‘we need dramatic, massive concerted international action NOW!!’ suggesting something like Covid-or-higher level of disruption, sustained for a decade… This rhetoric is futile, annoying, counterproductive, and doesn’t map to anything large human masses have ever show capacity for doing. In fact Covid has shown us collapsing under a third of the lifestyle stress they expect us to keep up for a decade.”

In short: individuals simply aren’t going to persevere with any lifestyle changes that require self-sacrifice, and even if they did it wouldn’t make a difference. But it’s okay, because all we need to do is wait. The technologists will be along shortly with their newfangled solutions, and Joe Q. Public will be able to continue living their life much as before.

There are several problems with this kind of technological fatalism. The first is that governments and technocrats don’t just magically do the right thing; they have incentives and pressures like any other organisations, and must balance countless competing issues of which climate change is just one. The second is that government simply cannot do everything alone.

Mobilising the kind of resources we need to fight climate change requires a level of concerted effort and spending that human societies have likely never made outside of wartime. This comparison to war, as distasteful as it might be, is probably necessary; the political academic David Runciman has made it about both our collective response to the coronavirus pandemic and the response we need to make to climate change:

“[in the response to the pandemic] money has literally… been thrown at the problem. And cost-benefit analysis has to some extent gone out the window, because things have to happen quickly. And there is a lot of historical evidence that that kind of behaviour on the part of governments and states is the engine of innovation – that many of the transformative technologies of the world we live in now… are a product initially of the heavy lifting and vastly wasteful spending of states under conditions of what they think of as wartime stress.

“I think there is a sense that, were we to treat climate change with the kind of urgency that we do treat military threats… we do have the capacity, we have the money, we have the political will, we have the willingness of democratic electorates and citizens to change their behaviour. We know that. Democracies have been through worse, and they have adapted and innovated and spent their way out.”

Venkatesh Rao, again, has made similar comparisons:

“Properly qualified, there is only one successful precedent for the kind of technological mobilization we are contemplating: the mobilization of American industry during World War II.”

If fighting climate change requires the sort of mobilisation that we haven’t seen since World War II, then it’s essential to get the public on board. It’s simply not possible to tolerate the upheaval and disruption of a war without the enthusiastic participation of the population. Morale wins wars more than anything else. Likewise, governments don’t embark upon wars – costly and dangerous things that they are – without feeling like the population really wants them and without feeling like their own political futures will benefit. The sort of cold, technocratic revolution that some climate change policy wonks seem to want, divorced from the consent and participation of the wider population, is not how democratic states work and is not how wars are won.

However, it’s not just a matter of morale and lobbying – of individuals being emotionally and politically engaged in fighting climate change. Individuals also need to make changes to their own lifestyles and habits that have a direct impact.

When it comes to reducing emissions, we’ve already harvested some of the lowest-hanging fruit – the biggest changes that can be made without individuals changing their lifestyles. The UK, for example, has reduced its emissions by 40% since 1990, while growing its economy, largely without consumers changing their habits at all. Those improvements came from big, centralised changes like the gradual-but-significant decarbonisation of the electricity grid and improvements to the efficiency and emissions of cars. But there’s little left to do that doesn’t involve lifestyle changes made by consumers; we can’t get to a 100% reduction unless individuals change.

Take food, for example – one of the worst offenders when it comes to the climate impact of our lifestyles. Within that, the biggest impact comes from meat. It might be possible, through technological developments, to eventually reduce the impact of meat on the environment somewhat. But the changes needed to reduce its impact by two thirds might well be impossible, or at least completely uneconomical – and yet people can straightforwardly achieve that reduction by simply eating two thirds less meat, for example by adopting a flexitarian, meat-free Monday-to-Friday diet. Such a diet involves few sacrifices on the part of individuals, is likely to be healthier for them, and has an impact far in excess of even the most far-off technological advances. The lifestyle change is preferable by far to even the hypothetical technological one.

There is absolutely a role for individuals in the fight against climate change, and they’re particularly important at the current stage of that fight. We can make lifestyle changes right now, while we’re waiting for the technologies of the future.

However, we must make sure that those lifestyle changes are effective. To my mind, effective lifestyle changes need to achieve three things:

  1. To foster a sense of solidarity with each other – to make us feel justifiably as though we’re all in it together and that we can actually make a difference. This will multiply our efforts and magnify our impact.

  2. To influence the private sector to behave better – via the choices that we make and via lobbying pressure. Most companies, most of the time, will calibrate their behaviour to barely above the level of being legally actionable, and will do the bare minimum of unprofitable things that they’re required by law and their customers to do. The balance must be tipped, so that good businesses succeed and bad businesses flounder.

  3. To influence the behaviour of governments – ensuring that climate change is on the agenda, that research funding is accelerated massively, and a favourable regulatory environment is created in which a positive selection pressure is exerted on climate-considerate businesses.

Studies have shown that individuals need to feel as though their behaviour will make a difference before committing to sustainable lifestyle choices – they need to feel as though they have so-called “self-efficacy”. But they also show that social behaviours and the way that people are viewed by others can make them feel as though they’re able to have more of an impact. Feelings of pride and shame, reflected in the judgements of others, make people feel as though they’re able to have a larger impact and make them more likely to make sustainable choices. One great example is the Swedish flygskam, or “flight shame” movement, which vilified flying and put a huge dent in the number of both domestic and overseas flights in Sweden. A culture that valorises sustainable choices, and gives social credibility to an environmental lifestyle can create a snowball effect – a positive feedback loop of improving behaviour.

These choices, given that we live in a consumerist society, inevitably impact on the private sector. Every consciously chosen sustainable product purchased represents, inescapably, the rejection of a less sustainable alternative. Every pound spent with a green brand is one not given to a polluting one. Whether formally or informally, this creates another positive feedback loop in which the environmental impact of the private sector gets better and better over time – as, speaking frankly, the worst offending companies go out of business. Study after study reveals that consumers defy crude stereotypes of them as apathetic; they feel positive about businesses that have a positive impact, and want their choices to be similarly positive.

Finally, consumers are inevitably also voters, and their changes in behaviour can’t be limited to the private sphere. They must happen at the ballot box, too. Individuals making climate change a priority in their voting, and empowering governments with a mandate to make bold investment choices, will have a huge impact. But political action is more than just voting. Consumers need to engage in protest and direct action, activities that prevent governments from passing the buck. Climate change is one of the hardest political issues: there are few pay-offs now, and much of the work is to avoid catastrophe years hence, when current governments are guaranteed to be long-since retired. That balance needs to be shifted so that inaction now results in pain now, not later.

Lifestyle changes can be ineffective or even counter-productive, of course. They should rightly be judged, therefore, on their ability to directly impact our collective footprint. But they also need to be judged in the context of their broader impact. They can foster solidarity with each other in what is effectively a war on climate change. They can signal to others that we care about the planet. And they can force the hand of government and industry to live up to their sides of the bargain. We shouldn’t let technological fatalists allow us to kid ourselves: a successful fight against climate change must involve individual lifestyle changes.

Further reading

James Bennet. “We need an energy miracle”. The Atlantic, November 2015

Venkatesh Rao. “Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War”. The Atlantic, October 2015

David Runciman. “Did Covid Kill the Climate?”. Talking Politics, 30 December 2020

Dr. Richard Carmichael. “Behaviour change, public engagement and Net Zero”. Report for the Committee on Climate Change, Imperial College London, October 2019

Paolo Antonetti and Stan Maklan. “Feelings that Make a Difference: How Guilt and Pride Convince Consumers of the Effectiveness of Sustainable Consumption Choices”. Journal of Business Ethics 124:117–134, September 2014

Christophe Demarque, Laetitia Charalambides, Denis J.Hilton and Laurent Waroquier. “Nudging sustainable consumption: The use of descriptive norms to promote a minority behavior in a realistic online shopping environment”. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 43:166–174, September 2015.

Camilla Cavendish. “Denouncing climate activists will not save the planet”. Financial Times, October 2019

Katherine White, David J. Hardisty, and Rishad Habib. “The Elusive Green Consumer”. HBR, July/August 2019