A Global Village
Issue 3 » Energy & Environment

Changing Attitudes To Climate Change

Victoria Bignet, Imperial College London

“Each passing day brings yet more evidence that we are now facing a planetary emergency – a crisis that threatens the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth.”
 Al Gore, 45th Vice President of the United States

The publication of the Stern Review and the screening of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 brought climate change to the forefront of public debate. The evidence seemed incontrovertible, and the consequences of continued CO2 emissions shocking, yet five years later it seems that little has changed in terms of individual behaviour towards to the environment.

While attitudes have evolved, there is evidence of an emerging so-called attitude-behaviour gap. Despite sustained media coverage, individual energy consumption continues to rise with no signs of abating. With complex carbon calculations to negotiate, and major personal sacrifice at stake, just how can an individual make a real difference?

Few would deny the consequences of CO2 emissions, or the existence of dramatic climate, yet a very small minority of us take significant action in our everyday lives to tackle the problem. It is as though we have become ‘immune’ to any moral requirement to take personal action; global warming is overwhelmingly reported on the news, yet our response is acutely underwhelming.

The central problem is that attitudes towards climate change and environmental issues, well intentioned as they may be, often fail to translate into lifestyle changes and actions at a personal level. This infamous attitude-behaviour gap is one of the greatest challenges facing the public climate change agenda.

The Tragedy of the Commons
Most Europeans happily undertake environmental measures that require relatively little personal or financial effort such as waste separation. Yet polls indicate that these decisions are largely based on a cost-benefit analysis, where a quantifiable financial or personal cost of taking action is measured against a seemingly intangible and shared benefit to the environment.

This is consistent with the success of energy saving light bulbs and fridges that will reduce power consumption and hence costs over the long term despite costing more initially. However, when it comes to voluntary carbon offset fees for air flights, that same energy-saving-light-bulb user is likely to baulk. Even though everyone benefits, there is little financial motivation for flight passengers to pay the offset fees due to the small amount of personal gain.

Garrett Hardin highlighted this scenario in 1968, terming it the ‘tragedy of the commons’ – a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This consideration of personal circumstances, against seemingly intangible benefits to the whole, is a leading factor behind the ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap.

Complex Calculations
The truth is, in some areas, decreasing one’s carbon footprint is very difficult. While walking or cycling instead of driving is a relatively straightforward calculation to make, buying low-carbon food is trickier than it may initially seem. While eating local produce has long been mooted as the ‘green’ option despite potential higher prices, recent analysis suggests that this is not always the case.

One example illustrating the complex relationships underlying food-miles involves the simple purchase of green beans. The fact is that often driving the extra miles to a place where ‘home grown’ beans are sold emits far more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the UK. Indeed when factors such as the non-use tractors, the use natural fertilisers and low-tech irrigation systems and the creation of employment in Kenya are taken into consideration, the prospect of ‘local’ beans seems almost indulgent. Hence, even though some carbon emissions are being negated through personal action, many are largely symbolic gestures.

The Powers-That-Be
So where does the responsibility fall for promoting more sustainable consumer behaviour lie? It may be argued that it is the role of governments to formulate policy and regulation nudging us, the consumers, towards ‘green’ behaviour and choices. Many of these strategies include a form of environmental or carbon taxation. Simple measures, such as a levy on plastic shopping bags, can have an immediate positive effect on the environment. For example, Ireland cut their use of bags by more than 90% during the first three months of the scheme and raised millions of Euros in revenue to be spent on environmental projects. Indeed today plastic bags are virtually unavailable in supermarkets across the nation; bringing bags has become the norm.

Sweden was one of the first nations to introduce widespread carbon taxes on energy in 1991. This made polluting more expensive and drove research into energy-efficient technology and renewable energy. The Swedish government also introduced a voluntary system for trading ‘green certificates’ encouraging consumers to increase the proportion of electricity they use that is generated from renewable sources.

More recent ambitious proposals include the introduction of a Personal Carbon Trading (PCT) scheme in the UK where every individual would be given a set allocation of carbon credits, which they could use to ‘pay’ for purchases like home energy usage and petrol. PCT attempts to highlight the connection between climate change and the individual by showing what is a fair amount of carbon for an individual use. Initially gaining political support, PCT was later ‘shelved’ due to concerns about the total extra reduction of carbon with respect to the costs of the scheme.

There are inherent challenges in associating individual action in climate change with the greater good, and complex carbon calculations involved in personal action. It seems that individual action will increasingly be coupled to government schemes to enable people to make informed choices. Those choices, however, remain ours to make.

Victoria Bignet is a final year BSc student in Biology at Imperial College London, with a strong interest in environmental issues and natural resource management.

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