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It is often argued that all we need to do is raise awareness of a “global emergency” and rising eco-anxiety means individuals will “do the right thing”. Our new study indicates this just is not the case.
We asked a balanced panel of 381 people about their opinions, beliefs, and awareness of climate change. Participants used a survey to identify which things they would be most willing to change to reduce carbon emissions.
These options varied from small tweaks such as switching to more efficient lightbulbs – an easy change but one that doesn’t hugely reduce emissions – to behavioural changes such as switching to a plant-based diet, which would reduce emissions considerably but requires a much bigger lifestyle change.
We might expect that people who are well aware of the severity of the climate crisis and who already demonstrate high eco-anxiety would opt for larger, more impactful behavioural changes. We might expect that high awareness and emotional engagement would lead to a clear willingness to make larger changes.
But that was not the case. Instead, we found that regardless of an individual’s stated environmental opinion and beliefs most opted for the easiest, but least impactful options. This goes against the oft-expressed view that all we need to do is explain just how bad the situation is and people will change.
We also found that demographic characteristics – culture, age, and socioeconomic background – had little bearing on how far individuals would go to change their behaviour to reduce their carbon emissions. Across all demographics the preferences were to take the easiest, least impactful options and strongly reject the more difficult and more sustainable options.
There were nuances: those with higher household incomes were more reluctant to reduce their overseas air travel, whereas those from lower income households considered this less of a priority. However, this may be due to the high cost of flights rather than a particular willingness to change that behaviour.
Awareness alone is not enough
All this means that simply raising awareness and trying to nudge people into changing their behaviour is unlikely to have the necessary impact.
We have previously analysed various “light touch” policies such as carbon labelling, which provide information on how people can reduce their personal carbon consumption, but still allow them to act how they please. We found the public was indeed informed, but since nothing was enforced no emission reduction or behaviour change could be guaranteed.
We also looked at proposed policies such as carbon taxes which are are applied upstream and passed on to consumers. While this may lead to some emission reductions it may also enforce negative social impacts, such as those on lower incomes having to make drastic life changes while the affluent carry on as normal.
In our work we have considered the concept of personal carbon budgets. This involves assigning an amount of carbon per person that they can spend how they please, but they must exist within that limit. Such a system would need careful design and monitoring to ensure it was applied fairly, especially for the most vulnerable in society.
However, despite high awareness, high eco-anxiety and calls for immediate change, the public believe others should take responsibility for action. The public believe action should either be a “group effort” between all forms of governments, businesses and individuals, or just national government.
Without state intervention, we simply won’t see any meaningful changes to business and industry practices, and lifestyles and consumption habits. We cannot keep using encouragement and hope.
Politicians who suggest policies such as personal carbon budgets are unlikely to be elected. And the much vaunted “polluter pays principle”, first introduced by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development in 1972, has failed to ensure that polluters pay fully for the social and environmental costs of their pollution.
We recognise that this is an immense and complex problem for scientists, governments, and politicians. How do we address climate change if governments will not make polluters pay and if we will not alter our own self-destructive behaviour?
It seems that we know the problem, we know how to solve it, we know we are all in it together and everyone needs to play their part – but we seem incapable of action.
Alice Brock receives funding from The South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership.
Ian Williams receives funding from EU Horizon 2020 and EPSRC. Ian Williams is a member of the International Solid Waste Association, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management and the Royal Society of Chemistry.