By Bridget Stuart (she/her)
Image courtesy of BBC
This piece discusses why individual climate action is important, why it is hard and what we can do about it.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
Let us start by acknowledging that the onus of responsibility for adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change most definitely lies with the governments, corporate sectors, and multinationals culpable for the lion’s share of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, this does not let individuals ‘off the hook’ and this argument is too often used as a defensive mechanism to validate people’s own inaction.
This highlights the dichotomy between individual change and systemic change, and another contrast exists between individual action and collective action. The individual level is often the one targeted by campaigns and messaging, as this is an all too convenient diversion tactic used to detract attention from the wider environmental issues at play, thus enabling big business, and the governments which prop them up, to carry on with their causal destruction of the planet and the exploitation of its people.
With that being said, the true significance of individual behaviour is often undervalued.
So yes, it is unfair to lay the burden of climate change upon the shoulders of individuals and yes, a single person will not save the world, but this does not mean we should not try. We cannot underestimate the importance of individual behaviour. It exerts a serious environmental impact, for example, 72% CO2 emissions worldwide are linked to household energy consumption (food, transport, shelter) (Hertwich and Peters, 2009). Therefore, individual behaviour change also represents a promising avenue for climate mitigation. The UN IPCC reported that “changes in lifestyle, behaviour patterns and management practices can contribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors” (IPCC, 2007, 4.3).
Also, we cannot achieve systemic change via collective action without individual change and individual action. People are waking up to this reality: 64% of people across 50 countries believe climate change is a global emergency, even in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic (“The People’s Climate Vote” Flynn et al., 2021). So, academics are calling for research to focus on how to translate these beliefs into behaviour, as rates of action are currently trailing behind the widespread sense of urgency (Steg, 2018).
However, in the meantime, we each can take responsibility for informing ourselves about the ways in which we can influence meaningful change in our own lives.
As aforementioned, the shifting of blame onto governments and industry is just one of the many barriers to individual action that have been identified in the literature (Gifford et al., 2018). Such barriers to action are either perceived and psychological or structural and physical. It is very important to note the structural barriers (e.g., financial, infrastructure, lack of resources) which constrain individuals from acting on climate change. Structural barriers need to be predominantly overcome by government intervention, legislation, and regulation. Nonetheless individuals can still play an important role in pressuring governments to accelerate the necessary reforms via protest or lobbying or petitioning.
However, most of the environmental psychology literature has focused specifically on psychological barriers at the individual level, as summarised in Table 1.
Table 1. The Seven “Dragons of Inaction” (Gifford, 2011)
The barriers and examples presented in Table 1. have been robustly confirmed in the literature, however, there exists a vast array of reasons for why individuals do not engage in environmental behaviour, specific to the person and behaviour in question.
This wealth and variety of barriers should not be seen as a deterrent for individual action but as factors to be identified and targeted to influence positive behaviour change. This view is taken by the well-respected behavioral ‘nudge’ intervention techniques that work to subversively overcome the barriers to behaviour change. To provide an example, the green ‘default’ method combats the ‘inertia’ barrier by setting the normative option (e.g., energy provider, meal option) to the most sustainable one, which people can only actively change.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
I am sure that readers have a relatively good idea of what the deal with being ‘eco-friendly’ is. The mantra of ‘reuse, reduce, recycle’ comes to mind, as do bamboo toothbrushes and tote bags. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream advice on individual action focuses on further consumption – buy that bamboo toothbrush, those sustainable cotton jeans, the Tesla, etc. While sustainable consumer behaviour is extremely important and individuals should always consider the environmental / ethical / social impacts of their purchases, this only represents one route of pro-environmental behaviour. This is a route associated with greater costs to individual consumers, which is both unappealing and alienates a significant proportion of society.
In fact, there are many actions that we can adopt that have a meaningful positive environmental impact and such behaviour changes do not necessarily have to come at the expense of our own comfort or wallets (although I would argue many reading this article are more likely to be able to ‘suffer’ either ‘blows’, at the very least in respect to the level of comfort we are accustomed to).
Table 2. summarises the main categories of individual pro-environmental behaviour. As aforementioned, individuals will differ in their ability to take up specific behaviours, depending on structural and socio-demographic factors, and such factors must be considered when considering an individual’s ability to take action.
Table 2. A Summary of Environmentally Significant Behaviours (Stern, 2000).
As with the barriers, there are a plethora of different environmental behaviours. Some involve taking up new actions, whereas others involve restructuring current actions to be more pro-environmental. Also, some behaviours are more high-impact, versus low-impact, in terms of their environmental benefit.
A class of behaviours of particular significance are habits. These are desirable targets for behaviour change as the new environmental behaviour formed would be more frequently and automatically performed, and resistant to change. Furthermore, the behaviours which tend to have the most significant environmental impact are controlled by habits (e.g., diet, transport mode, energy use). This ties in with what Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh talked about in the OCS 1st week event: the timing of habit change is of the upmost importance, and change is most successful when influenced at moments of disruptive change. Indeed, Whitmarsh and her colleagues have identified this point in time as one such moment.
Ultimately, in our individual lives, we have control over our daily behaviours and how we influence significant others within our social network. On a wider scale, we have power as consumers and voters within democratic societies. Finally, when we collectively band together – as individuals – we can create a positive force for system change.
Environmental actions can be as simple and low-effort as a conversation with a friend about single-use materials, changing to a sustainable bank, informing oneself with a book or documentary, or eating more plant-based foods. Every drop in the ocean counts.
There are currently 7.6 billion actors living on this shared vessel that is Earth, progressively speeding towards climate breakdown. When it comes to taking environmental action, some individuals are more culpable, some individuals are more capable and some individuals desperately need others to compensate for their personal lack of culpability, capability, and the disproportionate risks they face every day because of said others’ behaviour.
While the debate surrounding the topic of individual action is valid and should be considered, a clear message shines through - those of us who can take action, must at least try. Whether we care to or not is a question that can only be answered by the individual.