Need something else for your growing to-do list? Environmentalists have about a zillion things for you, give or take.
Chances are that you’ve heard a lot of them already: Ditch your car for a bike, take fewer flights, and go vegan. Oh, and install solar panels on your roof, dry your laundry on a clothesline, use less water when you brush your teeth, take shorter showers … hey, where are you going? We’re just getting started!
For decades, we’ve been told that the solution to our planetary crisis starts with us. These “simple” tips are so pervasive, they usually go unquestioned. But that doesn’t mean that most people have the time or motivation to heed them. In fact, new research suggests that hearing eco-friendly tips like these actually makes people less likely to do anything about climate change. Oops! Experts say there are better ways to get people to adopt green habits—and they don’t involve nagging or guilt-tripping.
In the study—titled “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”—researchers at Georgia State University surveyed nearly 2,000 people online to see how they would respond to different messages about climate change. Some saw messages about personal sacrifices, like using less hot water. Others saw statements about policy actions, like laws that would limit carbon emissions, stop deforestation, or increase fuel efficiency standards for cars. The messenger—whether scientist or not—didn’t make much of a difference.
“I think the results of this paper really add an abundance of caution, that we shouldn't hope that species will adapt to changing climate and changing habitats, that we don't need to do anything,” says Mark Reynolds, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird program, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Then the respondents were asked about their thoughts on climate change. The people who read the messages about individual responsibilities were less likely to report that they believed in human-caused climate change, less likely to support climate-friendly political candidates, and less likely to act to reduce their own emissions.
While the advice about personal behavior spurred a negative response from people across the political spectrum, the effect was much stronger among Republicans than Democrats, said Risa Palm, a professor of urban geography at Georgia State and the lead author of the study.On the other hand, “when the message was linked with policy issues, it didn’t have this kind of negative effect,” she said. Palm’s study reinforces previous research that people prefer wide-scale changes that don’t require them to change their own behavior. They simply don’t feel like anything they could do would make much of a difference.
It’s a valid point of view, according to Sarah McFarland Taylor, the author of Ecopiety: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue. The scope of the proposed eco-friendly solutions—like, say, getting individuals to use less hot water—is simply “absurd” compared to the scope of the problem, she said.Taylor, an associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern, uses the term “ecopiety” to refer to the voluntary duties that signal a person’s “green” virtue—driving a Toyota Prius, filling up a Nalgene, or ordering a salad instead of a burger. “We are fiddling with all these fiddly little ‘ecopiety’ details while the world is burning,” she said.
“The fact of the matter is, a small cadre of the ‘ecopious’ who have the wherewithal and the resources to do these voluntary individual actions, will do them,” Taylor said. “And the rest of the people will not.”Why are people so resistant to climate-friendly behavior? It comes down to psychology. When people don’t like the solutions that are presented to them, or when they feel like their freedom is under threat, they may deny that there’s a problem altogether, Palm said. When the Toyota Prius went worldwide in 2000, it was marketed as a climate-friendly, virtuous purchase, because it ran on gas and electricity. “There was an unintended rebound effect, with certain sectors of the population reacting very hostilely,” Taylor said. Years later, diesel truck owners started “coal-rolling”: removing emissions controls and rigging up their vehicles to spew giant clouds of smoke, targeted at unsuspecting pedestrians, bicyclists, and Prius owners.