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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13 responses to “DEATH OF A THOUSAND TIPS”

  1. Peter Winters says:

    Great piece – and it articulates something that has been on my mind for a while.

    I read Dave Reay’s “Climate Change Begins at Home” yesterday and he talks about the food miles embodied in a typical bunch of grapes. And then today, my wife has provided lunch for the family with some grapes for dessert. My initial feelings about this is to think we have made another poor carbon-choice, and that this has just added a chunk to my/our carbon footprint.

    But I then feel angry and frustrated … why is up to us to try and keep abreast of all this? .. and also to communicate to people who might buy the stuff on our behalf? With the best of intensions, it is becoming nightmarishly complex to be “good”. It is impossibly difficult for a family to manage all this!

    My proposition is that there should be a whole raft of stuff that is phased-out / made illegal. It should be impossible to:

    buy low efficiency light bulbs
    buy food that has been flown in
    buy cars that do less than 40mpg
    do any kind of flying (or highly restricted), and so on

    In addition, “necessity is the mother of invention”. If there were a ban on flights, this would allow incredible investment in eco-friendly alternatives. Instead of flying around with current jets, there could be massive investment in high-tech sailing boats, telecommunications alternatives, local food, eco-friendly flying etc. etc.

  2. Chris Lang says:

    Hi George,

    Thomas L. Friedman says something not so very different in a recent IHT article (available here:

    “Hey, I’m really glad you switched to long-lasting compact fluorescent light bulbs in your house. But the growth in Doha and Dalian ate all your energy savings for breakfast. I’m glad you bought a hybrid car. But Doha and Dalian devoured that before noon. I am glad that the U.S. Congress is debating whether to bring U.S. auto mileage requirements up to European levels by 2020. Doha and Dalian will have those gains for lunch – maybe just the first course. I’m glad that solar and wind power are “soaring” toward 2 percent of U.S. energy generation, but Doha and Dalian will devour all those gains for dinner. I am thrilled that you are now doing the “20 green things” suggested by your favorite American magazine. Doha and Dalian will snack on them all, like popcorn before bedtime.”

  3. I totally agree with you. We are being manipulated in order to think that small steps taken individually can save the world. All this reminds me of the charity campaigns lik “Live Aid” or “Stand up against poverty”. Nothing is being done for the poorest and these iniciatives only deviate efforts from the necessary social change.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    Yup. Need BIG steps:

    (1) Either forego or sequester the 8 billion tonnes of carbon added yearly to the active carbon cycle.

    (2) Begin sequestering, yearly, some of the 500 billion tonnes of excess carbon already added to the active carbon cycle. Possibly 7 billion tonnes per year would be enough.

    Sequestering costs are currently estimated to be US $40 per tonne, declining with experience to US $25 per tonne. A BIG step…

  5. Yes, I concur like everyone else here, and have had similar thoughts on posts on my blog.

    The fact is that we have some very hard choices to make – right now. Personally, I thought Live Earth was offensive. We aren’t going to “carbon credit” our way out of the situation, nor is changing a light bulb going to change the world. I also hate it it when the media tells us that some relatively insignificant action will “save the world from global warming”. Yes, we should use high efficiency bulbs (and cars, appliances, etc.) but what will “save the world” is a new mindset.

  6. Ashton Berry says:

    I like many of the previous commentators enthusiastically agree with the points raised in this article. As someone who works in an industry that specialises in environmental education and now climate change and also as someone just starting his Masters in Climate Change Adaptation, societies fixation on the ‘easy fix’ is a worrying phenomenon. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a child not to play with matches, its not until they get burnt that they get the point. The farmers in my area of the world are now feeling the pain of the most severe drought on record. These farmers only now rank within the files of the climate change believers.

    My question is, “How do we raise awareness about climate change without the worlds community having to get its fingers burnt?”

  7. Jeremy says:

    What worries me most is that if it takes hollywood blockbusters, the largest concerts ever staged, and millions of pounds worth of advertising to get people to change their lightbulbs, what will it take to make them stop driving?

    Martial law perhaps…

  8. Tom Crompton says:

    Yes, I agree too. There is growing recognition of the problems of juxtaposing a proper understanding of the gravity of the climate-change problem alongside the nugatory impact of the ‘top tips’ for cutting our own emissions. But this isn’t leading to pressure for more meaningful behavioural change. Rather, it’s leading to the serious business of highlighting the full projected implications of climate change being derided as ‘climate porn’. <a href=”” Climate porn

  9. Liz says:

    Jeremy – What will it make them stop driving? A very good reason to use public transport instead I should imagine. If the savings of taking a train or bus to work don’t outweigh the comfort and convenience provided by taking your own car then people wont do it. My train journey to work costs me £52 a month, the cost of driving would probably be around £70 at most. For a lot of people the difference is nothing for the convenience. However things would be a lot different if a monthly season ticket cost £10.

    I agree with Peter Winters, many things should be phased out, and the government should enforce these sorts of things, such as banning low efficiency light bulbs and taxing air and car travel heavily to fund cheaper public transport.

    However, I’m still a great believer in the little things. Drawing attention to switching off items on standby and using efficient light bulbs, even if they don’t have very big emissions savings, change the mindset of a population one small step at a time, which is all we can hope for.

  10. Graham Game says:

    Spot on George. My consultancy works soley on the psychology of climate change. Check out my colleague Mary Jane Rusts’ new paper ‘Climate on the Couch’.

    Graham Game
    Green Futures Consultancy

  11. Chris Taylor says:

    With mankind’s irresistible desire for economic growth, the increase in demand for fossil fuels is unstoppable. We must look at the other end of the equation, namely fossil fuel supply. If fossil fuels are dug out of the ground, for certain we are going to burn them. Restricting supply could be a winner for everyone. Fuel prices would further soar, increasing profit per barrel for the oil giants, but making alternative sustainable energy an economically viable. It’s so easy for me to say it, sitting on my couch in my personal jet, half way across the Atlantic.

  12. […] Plastic bags, for example, keep coming up in the context of climate change. Plastic bags represent 1/5000th of an adult carbon footprint. They need to be banned, but not for the climate. Turning appliances […]

  13. Shanti says:

    Interesting post. As I usually point out in these types of posts, the IPCC pointed to agriculture (especially livestock) as the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases. So a person changing their lifestyle a little bit (how they eat) CAN make a big difference. But most people aren’t willing to change how they eat, even if it’s just a little bit.

    Which leads back to what you were saying, rather than the objective being “let’s get people to change”, it seems like the objective is to get people to want change. So then they start to vote for politicians that will give what they want- aka, one of Obama’s big selling points was his emphasis on energy.

    So in terms of awareness raising, I think the little things actually do help, in that they create political pressure to improve things. It also helps to have personal responsibility be a factor. In terms of making a personal difference, ironically, I agree they rarely do (except when going vegetarian, swapping to public transport, etc).

    Another interesting detrimental effect of this campaigning is it encourages consumerism- people will buy products they don’t really need because they’re “green.” I can’t tell you how many people I know with dozens of reusable bags, which kind of negates the point.

    I think I’m done rambling for now, that last point is probably the most worthwhile.

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