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Who should lower their emissions?
Hey climate friends, and welcome back to Climate Psyched - the news letter where we dig deeper in to all things related to psychology and climate. If you’re new here you might want to check out some of our previous posts (maybe this one about Hope, or this one about the importance of collective action). If you read our latest post about Climate Denial, we also want to recommend this recently published article by Kirsti M. Jylhä and colleagues, on Science Denial, looking at it from a perspective of cognitive processes, emotion regulation and motivated reasoning.
But for today’s post we wanted to talk about something that we’ve been discussing increasingly in the recent years: how to become better att differentiate not only what behavior changes are necessary to make in response to climate change, but also WHO should be engaging in WHAT behaviors.
Not really news, a recent study however once again reminded us about the inequality in who’s responsible for current greenhouse gas emissions. The study estimates that the top 0.1% households had CO2e emissions 597× higher than an average low-income country household in 2019. Oxfam reports show that globally, the top percent emits twice as much as the bottom 50%. The climate crisis is an extremely unequal crisis, not only when it comes to who is impacted by is consequences, but increasingly who is causing its impacts. As climate researcher Kevin Anderson puts it: If the top 10% cut their emissions to EU average, and the bottom 90% did nothing, global emissions would reduce by ⅓.
To put it bluntly: to tackle climate change, the rich need to change more than the poor and take a much bigger responsibility than today.
The IPCC states in its latest WGIII report that behavioral changes have the potential of reducing emissions of 40-70% by 2050. But it’s still only fairly recently that researchers started to take the questions of differences in behavioral impact on emissions seriously and to differentiate between low and high impact behaviors (We wrote about that here).
But it’s not just a matter of WHAT behaviors need to change, but now more than ever of WHO has the capacity and needs to do what.
In climate work focused on mitigation and phasing out GHG emissions, behavioral change is commonly encouraged. And rightly so!
But the question of “What can you do to decrease your emissions?” should be preceded by the question “Who are you?”, and specifically “How rich are you?”.
The shift from valuing all behaviors equally (“it’s better do something than nothing, start with a small step!”, which risks negative spillover effects, e.g. people thinking they’ve done enough by recycling and then buy a plane ticket as a treat) to differentiating between the impact of different behaviors (see for example this well-known study from 2017) is indeed welcome, but part of that equation should also be to differentiate between different emission reduction potentials.
Reducing one’s own emissions is what we categorize as a direct mitigation behavior, for example eating plant based food instead of meat or driving and electric vehicle instead of a diesel car. It has a direct (however small) impact on our emissions. But direct mitigation behaviors are far from the only available climate behaviors there are. And depending on how big your emission reduction potential is, direct mitigation might not be the smartest to spend your time on. In addition to direct mitigation behaviors are indirect mitigation behaviors, i.e. behaviors that aims towards emission reduction but in a more indirect way. For example protesting, talking to others about climate to change social norms, talking to your boss to raise the proposal of your company investing in solar power, writing letters to your local politicians. Both of these categories of behaviors are essential in mitigating the climate crisis, but depending on how high your own emissions are to start with the direct mitigation behaviors can become more or less important.
In addition to mitigation behaviors, there’s a wide range of behaviors that more specifically are aimed towards climate adaptation, on various levels (we would also argue that many behaviors that generally are considered as primarily mitigation behaviors actually serve a more adaptive purpose. But more on that another time).
In general, the more money you have the larger your emissions are, the bigger your emission reduction potential is, and with that the more feasible it is to focus on direct mitigation behaviors, such as staying on the ground and avoiding airplanes. If Taylor Swift were to quit flying her private jet, it would make a much bigger impact on decreasing emissions than if an average citizen of Pakistan (a country with low emissions per capita) spent all their time trying to reduce their emissions. If your carbon footprint already is low, there’s little potential for it to decrease further.
Another reason for people with great emissions reduction potential to engage in direct mitigation behaviors is that (in general) people with more money also often possess more power, whether this power be organizational, political, or by being, well, famous. This can mean that they also have a greater potential of being role models for others. Recent (still unpublished) research by PhD-candidate Steve Westlake shows that when leaders engage in high impact low emission behaviors, others tend to follow, and said leaders’ credibility and approval increases substantially.
So perhaps we shouldn’t just be talking about emissions reduction potential, but also about role model potential.
The inequality of the climate crisis also means that low emitters, i.e. people with small emission reduction potential, in general have a bigger need of climate adaptation. To a certain extent climate adaptation is in the hands of households, but for a society to build up resilience, climate policies must be put into place.
If a person has a small emission reduction potential, then efforts to contribute to climate mitigation should rather be focused on indirect mitigation behaviors. In other words: taking collective action to promote brave climate policies and regulations, such as working towards a ban of private jets (it does still seem unlikely that Taylor Swift and Jay-Z will give up flying private jets by their own free will).
Having different potential for different types of behaviors doesn’t mean that some people won’t have anything to contribute in the climate work, but rather that we have different roles to play in it. And in the context of having little time to make massive changes, we all need to be strategic and put our efforts where they make as big of a difference as possible.
Here are a few things to do:
Identify how great your emission reduction potential is and use whatever power you have as a potential role model (Note: Many of us living in western, industrialized countries are amongst the top 10% globally). Use that potential by engaging in direct mitigation behaviors!
Regardless of who you are: engage in indirect mitigation behaviors and work collectively to implement progressive climate policies, change social norms, block new coal mines, encourage journalists to sharpen their climate reporting. To mention a few things.
Start differentiating between different types of climate behaviors. When working towards climate mitigation a behaviors impact is important, but there are also behaviors aimed towards climate adaptation where the aim more often can be on building resilience. When “doing our part for climate” it’s a good idea to know what your purpose is, and if your chosen behaviors fit that purpose.
Remember that this categorization very well can be used on organizations and companies as well! A high emitting business of course also has a greater emission reduction potential and more potential to make a direct impact by reducing its own emissions.
There’s plenty for us to do, we just need to chose wisely.
Thank you for reading, and feel free to drop a comment or though below, we love to hear from you!