Climate change: do we need to change opinions or laws?

PLMR

As the issue of climate change continues to loom ever larger in the public conscience, the question is being asked more and more: whose fault is climate change?

Over the past decade we have seen that people are generally becoming more socially aware about the issue of climate change. Some are eating less meat, some are spending less on fast fashion, and some are even pledging on social media that they will stop taking flights. This behavioural shift seems significant, but to understand how significant, and whether it is enough, it’s important to understand whether climate change can be prevented simply by changing attitudes.

Recycling is a good example. Three in five (60%) UK households perceive a positive social norm around the issue of recycling. We see recycling bins everywhere – in schools, offices, on the street. Children reprimand their parents for not recycling, and vice versa. But recycling, although beneficial, can only be placed in the ‘moderate’ category of impact as a behavioural change, if its impact is measured by per tonne of carbon dioxide saved by that specific behavioural change. To put this in context, recycling has a similar impact as hanging up your clothes to dry instead of using a machine.

It might seem unfair to dismiss recycling as a ‘moderate’ way of lowering your carbon emissions. Environmentally friendly behaviour has a cumulative effect. If you recycle your paper and plastics, change your light bulbs, wash your clothes in cold water and replace your diesel car with a hybrid, then the impact grows. It can no longer be fairly described as ‘moderate’.

What’s more, if you were to participate in these behaviours as part of a collective, and if social norms shifted around issues like meat, flying and cars because of that collective action, then the impact would be huge. That collective action has not happened yet.  This might be because the organisations that need to persuade us – from governments, to academia, to NGOs – have not yet deployed effective, targeted communication strategies.

Different people react to different messages. It’s been proven that those on the left are more susceptible to a ‘justice’-based message, whereas those on the right are most likely to be stirred to action by an anti-waste message. This might explain why the Extinction Rebellion movement is totally unpalatable by many on the right.

Importantly, individuals need ‘people like them’ to lead on issues if they are going to be persuaded to engage with those issues. It is hard to imagine some leaders emphasising the problem of climate change, and their unwillingness can often translate into climate scepticism among their followers.

Finally, there is the issue of responsibility. In October, The Guardian revealed that 20 firms are behind one third of all carbon emissions. Such findings can often be discouraging to the general public. The suggestion that individuals should change their diet, transport choices and buying habits while the most polluting oil firms carry on as usual is ridiculous, even enraging, to some.

So, is it just an issue of telling others to stop polluting? As history shows with issues like smoking, legislation and public perception have a reciprocal relationship. Legislation can influence public opinion, and public opinion can influence legislation – maybe with climate change, both need to happen.

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