Discover more from Climate Psyched
You are more than a consumer.
Why we need to expand what we mean when we talk about taking climate action.
Warmly welcome to the second edition of Climate Psyched! Our aim in this newsletter is to look deeper into how we humans (more or less successfully) handle the climate crisis. In each newsletter we’ll highlight a current or ongoing event, explain it from a climate psychological angle and channel it into concrete action. We’ll share interesting research articles, helpful resources and give you snippets from our book “Climate psychology” (currently available in Swedish, we’re working on an updated and translated English version)
In our first edition, we talked about the recent IPCC report on mitigation, and how happy we as psychologists were to see that they included a chapter on the importance and potential for behavioral changes to help mitigation efforts, not the least because merely informing about the climate crisis is hopelessly inefficient in creating large scale change.
This time we’ll delve deeper into what kind of behavioral change is needed, and the range of behavioral changes we as individuals are capable of.
The political situation in many countries looks a lot like this: Politicians keep repeating that they take the climate crisis seriously, that they are aware of its urgency and that they’re committed to reaching the 1.5 degree target. At the same time new fossil based infrastructure is approved, fossil fuels keep being immensely subsidized and even measures targeted at the end consumer are half hearted at best, and counterproductive at worst.
As for the discussion around individual responsibilities and actions in the climate work, it’s still in many ways surrounding what we can do to become better consumers, and consuming smarter (e.g. from sustainable brands, train tickets instead of flight tickets, EVs instead of gasoline cars) decreasing our individual carbon footprint. The story goes something like this: “If many enough make their own contribution, then great things can happen”. Or “no one can do everything, but everyone can do something!”
But are we even choosing our something wisely? And are we putting the blame and responsibility where it really should go?
Guilty of reproducing the narrative that the individual’s role in the climate work primarily is that of the consumer, are many - yes, even the environmental movement.
In the beginning of the millennia, British Petroleum changed their strategy from denying the effects of climate change, to a strategy called incrementalism. The rhetoric sounds like “if everyone does something small, together we can make a big difference”. Of course, that is not true, if everyone does 5% of their part, only 5% of the whole will change. One of BPs methods was to launch one of the first carbon footprint calculators, which they called the Greencurve. The purpose of these kinds of campaigns is to delay transition to sustainability, and make people focus on finding solutions to the climate crisis in their own wallets. Having people look towards their own behaviors and wallets, rather than putting pressure on the large polluters, seems to have been both successful and comfortable - not for the climate crisis, but for the fossil fuels companies.
Large environmental organizations, such as WWF, are enhancing this message further by communicating the importance of personal choices and sustainable consumption. Many environmental organizations still encourage people to measure their ecological footprint, but these calculators rarely or never include questions like “did you organize with friends and family this week”. This puts the light on consumption behavior, and thus removes the light from the importance of organizing. Since green organizations are trusted sources of knowledge by the most engaged and alarmed, this focus might lead to failure to act collectively and effectively.
As we were researching our book “Climate psychology” a few years back, and went over the research on what influences if people act climate friendly or not, we noticed the disproportionate amount of research done on low impact consumer and household behaviors. Turning off the lights. Recycling. Buying organic products. Research is influenced by several things: what a research group is able to get funding for, a methodology that’s feasible to carry out, and what might generate significant results. But research is also normative, in the way that what gets a lot of time and attention and that which builds up the research literature in a field will be considered important. We still lack enough scientific knowledge about what get’s people to take large scale and potentially higher risk action, which we eagerly need.
It seems the narrative of the perfect consumer as an important savior of the climate crisis has been reproduced on various levels for many decades. It needs to change.
Imagine if you went to a therapist to get help with some issues that’d been troubling you - and the therapist started asking you about your consumer choices, whilst completely ignoring behaviors such as what your work situation is, how you nurture your relationships, what you like doing together with other people, in what situations you feel a sense of meaningfulness, and what your experiences of collaborating with others look like.
It makes sense, when we’re dealing with how we act in this world, that we include all aspects of what we’re capable of as human beings. It’s so obvious that our behavioral repertoire is a wide spectrum of actions, that it’s completely bizarre that we’ve allowed ourselves to be so immensely reduced to a single role in the super wicked problem that is the climate (and its related) crises.
Here’s what everyone needs to do: In every situation where the issue of how people can contribute to solving the climate crisis is addressed (i.e. pretty much always) we need to expand what behaviors are included. When talking about behavioral change for the climate, being “climate smart” and acting environmentally friendly, behaviors need to mean more than “the things people do in their households, and the stuff people buy”.
This is luckily beginning to happen more and more. Not so much from the fossil company side (surprise!), but from more and more environmental organizations and, from the behavioral scientist investigating the individual person’s role in the climate work.
In our last edition we wrote about the IPCC report including a chapter on behavioral change and how individual’s play several different roles in the climate transitions, not the least as role models and policy makers. This mirrors the recent research from Nielsen et al. (2021) that highlight the need for high-emitting folks to take on no less than five different roles in the climate, moving us beyond being merely consumers. And the Swedish organisation Naturskyddsföreningen (roughly “Association for protecting nature”) has in the past years shifted its discourse on climate action from small actions towards more collective ones, and in their recent list of “10 things you can do for climate” pretty much all actions go beyond consumer choices.
When writing “Climate Psychology”, one of our main aims was to develop a tool that would help shift the perspective from individual, consumer choices, into collective, active citizenship, in an easy and understandable way. This is what we came up with:
The Impact Arrow.
All climate interventions can be placed somewhere along two complementary spectrums; how high/low the impact of the intervention will be, and how short/long term its effects will be. Since we’re living in the reality of needing to do very very much in very very little time, and no one person indeed can do everything, we need to use tools that help us act in a smart way. Smart meaning using our time, efforts, competences and resources in a way that helps create the large scale long term change that needs to happen to keep the world inhabitable.
The impact arrow is meant to be used primarily before diving head into *taking action*. It’s a tool that helps us to zoom out, look at the bigger picture and ask ourselves if what we’re doing will make a difference. Sometimes it’ll remind us that we need to do some research before moving further with our plans.
Let’s take a few examples.
A. Recycling. In a survey of European attitudes towards taking climate action, the number one thing people reported as very important for preserving the environment and planet was recycling. The problem is that recycling is a low impact behavior. It won’t make much of a difference in terms of mitigating climate change, and it won’t really make much of a long term change (your recycling won’t in itself change the production or packaging). On the impact arrow this will be placed down in the left corner.
B. Skipping a flight. In a study by Kim Nicholas and Seth Wynes (2017), avoiding a transatlantic roundtrip flight per year is one of the most high impact actions a person can take. (Side note: Kim has a wonderful climate newsletter: “We can fix it”, if you haven’t yet signed up for it, go do that straight away!) But - and this is a big but - it still won’t create long term change. When the corona pandemic hit back in 2020, international flights dropped as much as 98% certain months. A massive global behavioral change! That however was followed by large governmental support for airlines, to keep them from going bankrupt. Now in 2022, flight levels have risen back up (even if they’re not quite at the pre-pandemic levels yet). Not even that massive, but individual, behavior change has had any substantial long term effect. It seems that for long-term change we need to move from acting alone, to acting together. From acting as consumers towards acting as citizens aiming to change the politics, policies, laws and economic system.
C. When we move from isolated behaviors (e.g. changing light bulbs, eating a vegetarian meal, taking the bus instead of the car), we can start looking at a combination of behaviors, carried out by a number of people, aiming towards changing the conditions that we live in. An example is the tax on plastic bags, which was implemented in Sweden in May 2020 and recently was reported to have been successful in decreasing people’s use of plastic bags, shifting preferences towards paper bags instead. A change in taxation acting as a behavior regulator. While we need to drastically reduce our use of plastics, plastic bags only account for a small amount of the total use of plastics. It’s definitely an intervention that seems to have had a substantial impact, but on the impact arrow we’ll still place it lower down towards the pointy side of the arrow. It won’t in itself solve anything.
D. Ideally we want to focus most of our energy towards interventions that have the potential of aiming towards the upper right corner of the arrow. High impact, long term change. It does get a little tricky, because we don’t always know exactly what these interventions are. The longer perspective we have, the trickier it is to know the exact impact, especially if the intervention is larger and interdisciplinary (compare to switching off the light, where you get instant feedback and can calculate the exact impact). But here, in the right hand upper corner we would assume that interventions such as putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies, prohibiting fossil fuel ads, shutting down a coal mine, changing the law to include ecocide would fall. Some key factors to consider (and that we will return to later on in this newsletter): the earlier in the chain we aim, the greater the chance for large scale change (i.e. better to change the system to become sustainable than trying to make people live sustainably in an unsustainable system), large scale action requires a massive amount of collaboration and cooperation, long term interventions need to be continuously evaluated and revised to be kept in line with the overarching goal.
We need all four corners (and the spaces in between) of the impact arrow and we can simultaneously do things that fall in all corners of it. So yes, of course you should recycle your waste, that’s just plain old common sense! But it’s often a good idea to practice zooming out to see the whole picture, and assess whether we’re using our own resources wisely. We especially need to keep track so we don’t hang out in the bottom left corner thinking that we’re on track to creating large scale change. Or settling for less effective strategies when there’s potential for more. We are, after all, in a crisis.
Let us know what you think about the Impact Arrow! Have you used it? Where would you put your own efforts if you placed the out on the arrow?