Climate Change Denial

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September 18, 2007


George Marshall @ 5:59 pm

st-seb-reduced.jpgWe are constantly being told that easy personal actions will ‘save the climate’. The problem is that most of these “top ten tips” are ineffectual and play directly to our denial tendencies.

Take plastic bags for example. Live Earth, green groups and lifestyle features have constantly told us that we can ‘save the climate’ by re-using them or using designer “Bags for Life” instead. People get very worked up about this topic. There are eight petitions on the number 10 Website calling for them to be banned or taxed, Ireland has imposed a special bag tax, and a town in Devon has banned them outright.

Granted, plastic bags are ugly, wasteful and deadly to turtles. But their contribution to climate change is vanishingly small. The average Brit consumes 134 plastic bags a year, resulting in just two kilos of the typical 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide he or she will emit in a year. That is one five thousandth of their overall climate impact.

And then there are the electronics on standby. They are an attractive example of the waste of consumer culture but are hardly a major source of emissions. The electricity to keep a television in standby mode for a whole year leads to 25 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide. It’s more than plastic bags, but still very marginal: one fifth of one percent of average emissions.

Here’s another tip that sounds more substantial: fill your kettle with the right amount of water. The UK government made this one of the core messages of its 1999  “Are You Doing Your Bit?” campaign. A very small bit as it turns out. According to the government’s own figures even if you are constantly boiling full kettles this will save all of 100 kilos of carbon dioxide a year, less than one percent of average emissions.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. All of these actions are worth doing as part of a green lifestyle. But it is a serious distortion to imply, as the top ten lists usually do, that there is any equivalence between these lifestyle preferences and the serious decisions that really reduce emissions –stopping flying, living close to work and living in a well insulated house.

Judging by the latest MORI poll data link…. , people have already acquired a severely distorted sense of priorities. 40% of people now believe that recycling domestic waste, which is a relatively small contributor to emissions, is the most important thing they can do to prevent climate change. Only 10% mention the far more important goals of reducing foreign holidays or using public transport.   

This easy tips undermine the wider message on the seriousness of climate change.  In its report on climate change messaging, “Warm Words”, the Institute of Public Policy Research argues that simple actions “easily lapse into ‘wallpaper’– the domestic, the routine, the boring, the too-easily understood and ignorable”. The IPPR is especially critical of headlines such as ‘20 things you can do to save the planet from destruction’ and said that putting trivial measures alongside alarmist warnings can lead people to “deflate, mock and reject” the very notion of climate change”.

And there is a greater danger that people might adopt the simple measures as a way to avoid making more challenging lifestyle changes. In regards of recycling MORI concluded that it was becoming “a ‘totem behaviour” and that  “individuals use recycling as a means of discharging their responsibility to undertake wider changes in lifestyle”. In other words, people can adopt the simplest solutions as a part of a deliberate denial strategy that enables them to feel virtuous without changing their real behaviour.

Imagine that we converted this approach into another intractable problem: smoking. Suppose a new campaign against smoking showed graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the punchline: It’s Easy to Be Healthy- Smoke One Less Cigarette a Month.

We know without a moment’s reflection that this campaign would fail. The target is so ludicrous, and the disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers would just laugh it off. 

So why then do well intentioned schools, councils and green groups – and let’s face it, Live Earth was an eight hour tip-fest – persist in promoting such ineffectual actions?

Their logic is as follows. Simple actions capture people’s attention and provide an entry level activity. Present people with the daunting big ticket items and they turn away. Give them something easy and possible and you have them moving in the right direction and, in theory, ready for the next level.

Well that is the theory but, as plentiful social research confirms, it doesn’t work. For one thing making the solutions easy is no guarantee that anyone will do them. The government spent £22 million on the ‘Do Your Bit’ campaign and has subsequently admitted that it produced no measurable change in personal behaviour.

And the argument that small actions are the automatic route to larger ones seems daft to my mind – like the old argument that cannabis leads to heroin. The people who do big actions were probably on that trajectory anyway, and most people get stuck on the small ones, happy to fool themselves that they have fulfilled their obligations.

Of course the real reason that the small steps approach is backed with government money is that it appears to be non-political. It is safe, domestic and non-threatening. It provides the appearance of action without challenging any powerful interests.

But no major social or economic change has ever arisen from volunteerism and the suggestion that it can is a deliberate strategy to prevent any real challenge to business as usual. 
Take Ireland for example- a country where emissions have risen a quarter since 1990– double the generous increase allowed under Kyoto. The response of the Irish government? A multi-million euro PR campaign called The Power of One link… which offers ‘ten top tips’ to ‘make a difference’. The tips include such earth shattering proposals as: unplug your mobile charger, fully fill your dishwasher and don’t overfill your kettle.  That sounds much nicer than curtailing roadbuilding or industrial growth. They are not called ‘easy tips’ for nothing. 

So let’s start again from first principle. We have to rethink the way we talk about climate change. It is insulting to assume that people can only be energized with the pint sized options. We need to present all lifestyle changes as part of a radical vision for a smart, healthy and just 21st century.

Let’s be clear that voluntary action will never be enough- we will need radical political economic and social change. So let’s start with that wretched phrase ‘you can save the planet’. Who wants to be the first town to ban it?  

This is a revamped and more opinionated version of an article that was published in The Guardian on September 13th 2007 Link…  The Guardian also commissioned a counter piece which led to a discussion of the merits of ‘small actions’ link…

Mike Tidwell has also written a great critique of small steps for Grist magazine which led to an intense debate link…

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