Lifestyle changes, including the choice to go vegan, can make a real impact when it comes to climate solutions.
When Kimberley Nicholas, a sustainability scientist at Lund University in Sweden, decided that she needed to confront the climate effects of her frequent flying, she took a scientist’s approach. She spent hours making meticulous spreadsheets comparing the costs of all the modes of transport she might take—in terms of time, finances, and emissions—and when she finished, she still didn’t know what the right choice was. She had, she says, “analysis paralysis.”
In the end, the spreadsheets were for naught. Instead, what it took for her to make a change was an hour-long conversation with a friend who had himself stopped flying. Seeing how a fellow academic made his career work without air travel convinced Nicholas she could do the same, so she quit flying within Europe (although she still flies to visit her family in the United States.) Now she takes trains across the continent, extending trips when she can to justify the travel time. She joins events virtually when the travel math doesn’t add up.
Nicholas was never among the worst offenders: She didn’t take 15-minute hops to the next town on a private jet. And no single person can measure up to the influence that governments, or fossil fuel companies, have over climate change. But as a climate expert, Nicholas knows how important individual choices—to drive or to take a bus, to eat a beef burger or an Impossible patty, to fly or to stay home—will prove in the fight to prevent catastrophe. “It’s not the start and the end of everything,” she says, “but it’s absolutely necessary and essential.”
The challenge is to figure out how to mobilize people to make those choices. Human psychology can be a tricky beast, but it also offers clues about how to encourage better decision-making. Some psychological research has suggested, for example, that people may struggle to repeatedly practice self-control. “People have a finite amount of time, energy, and capacity,” Nicholas says, so it’s important to focus on the few behaviors that can do the most for the climate.
Most people recognize the threat of human-caused climate change, but they tend to know less about what they can do to mitigate it. Recycling is a popular option, but avoiding just one round-trip flight is eight times better for the planet than comprehensively recycling for a whole year, according to Nicholas’ research. Though of course it is best to do both, it’s far better to focus on one high-impact decision, like choosing not to fly, than maintain a low-impact practice throughout an entire year. And yet … recycling still gets far more airplay than going plane-free.
Researchers generally agree that people can make the most positive changes in three areas of their lives: transportation (flying and driving), diet (meat consumption and food waste), and household gas and energy use. By taking one transatlantic flight, an individual puts the equivalent of 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—a huge fraction of the 20 tons the average American produces each year. (We should be seeking to bring that number down to 2 tons, Nicholas says.) Project Drawdown, an organization that quantifies the effects of a wide variety of climate change solutions, puts plant-rich diets and reduced food waste near the top of its list.
Collectively, these individual behaviors can make an enormous dent in carbon emissions. “About a third of the climate solutions we need are going to be led by individual decisionmaking,” says Jonathan Foley, Project Drawdown’s executive director. But some of the most significant changes—going car-free, for example—aren’t feasible without further action from policymakers. Public transit in the US remains woefully inadequate, and many Americans live amidst suburban sprawl, miles from the nearest grocery store.
Other actions, though, are eminently doable—at least on paper. Restaurants and supermarkets offer a wide array of meat alternatives. Switching from beef to chicken is always a possibility. And not wasting your food is just a matter of eating it before it goes bad. But for someone who has been eating the meat-heavy standard American diet their whole life and blithely wasting a third of the food they purchase, as most of us do, these changes are far from trivial. Psychologist Wendy Wood famously determined that over a third of a person’s daily actions are habitual, things done at the margins of their conscious awareness. And if someone has been eating the same diet their whole life, food choices surely fall into that category.
The trouble with habits is that they are tough to change. Even modest choices—like eating plant-based a few times a week or checking the fridge before grocery shopping to prevent food waste—can prove slippery. But here psychology offers another useful clue: When people are undergoing a major life change, new behaviors tend to stick a bit better. One study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that families who had just moved were more likely to make sustainable choices after an educational intervention than those who had not. These “discontinuities,” researchers think, disrupt old habits and make room for new ones. And moving isn’t the only important discontinuity: Starting a new job, getting married, and even experiencing an extreme weather event (as long as one isn’t too severely affected) could all be opportunities for building more sustainable habits.
Cultural norms are an even bigger barrier than habits, says Lorraine Whitmarsh, professor of environmental psychology at the University of Bath. Eating meat, for example, has an association with masculinity in many cultures, including in the US. Cars, too, can function as powerful symbols of status and maturity. A life disruption like moving isn’t necessarily going to be enough to override those forces.
And because climate change is a relatively slow process that has only intermittent, unpredictable effects on the daily lives of most Americans, efforts to mitigate it suffer from the phenomenon of psychological distance: It’s hard to pin down just how choosing to skip one burger (or a thousand burgers) will improve the lives of loved ones. So climate communicators will often focus on co-benefits, positive effects on one’s health, finances, and community.
“For people to act on global goods, it really takes a very high level of dedication,” says Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems and global change at Cornell University. “But when you personalize it,” he continues, “then people really start worrying.” Focusing on the cardiovascular benefits of avoiding beef, or the reduced cost of filling up an electric vehicle, might provide the final push that someone needs to make a sustainable change.
And co-benefits make a lot of sense: People might reasonably feel more empowered to affect their own health than the health of the entire planet. Self-efficacy (the perception that a person can change their actions) and response efficacy (the perception that those changes will have positive consequences) are both important predictors of behavior change. Enhancing self-efficacy can involve asking people to take on more modest lifestyle changes, like avoiding beef and taking one less flight a year, rather than going vegan and never flying again. “Not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, I think, is really important,” Nicholas says.
Response efficacy, though, can be tricky. Compared to the actions of fossil fuel companies and world governments, a single person’s choices can seem entirely irrelevant. And in the past, those companies have attempted to place the blame for climate change fully on individuals to detract attention from their own misdeeds. But we don’t have to choose between eating more veggies and voting for climate-friendly politicians, or driving less and fighting back against the fossil fuel industry, Foley says. To the contrary, these actions actually go hand in hand. “By switching to an electric vehicle, I can give the middle finger to ExxonMobil,” he says. “I’m not sending them my money.”
And the individual changes themselves do matter, especially in a country like the US. Here, almost everyone produces much more than 2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, the individual budget that would help keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. That’s why Nicholas gears her communication toward the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population, or anyone making over $38,000 a year. The average American emits way less than a jet-setting billionaire, and way, way less than a fossil fuel company—but they are still emitting far too much. “The thing is, we need everybody to change,” Whitmarsh says.
Individual change can also be far more powerful than most people realize, when it spreads through social networks. Studies consistently show that social norms play a major role in whether or not people decide to make climate-friendly choices. When one person puts a solar panel on their roof, for example, the odds of other people in their zip code installing solar panels noticeably increase. (In fact, a friend’s good behavior is exactly what got Nicholas to adjust her own travel habits.) By making a climate-friendly choice, you aren’t just reducing your own emissions—you are inspiring others to reduce theirs. “It’s not just the drop in the bucket you contributed individually,” Foley says. “It’s the other drops that follow you.”
And with enough drops, bigger changes can start to happen. Buying an electric vehicle makes the next one cheaper, and may eventually make them more broadly accessible. Increased demand for meat-free options encourages restaurants to change their menus, so people who would never consider going fully vegan might try a plant-based meal. As individuals, we are all participants in a complex, densely-linked system, and our decisions can propagate through that system in ways that exponentially increase their power.
“Systems change in interesting ways, often before we can see them,” Foley says. “Things happen very, very, very slowly—then all at once.”
Original source: https://www.wired.com