Like taking a bus without a ticket: how we can all make a difference on climate change


We often think it is up to governments and industry to play a major role in tackling climate change.

But do individuals have a role to play in combating climate change?

Professor Ben Newell is Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Psychology at UNSW, whose research focuses on the cognitive processes underlying judgment, choice and decision making.

He says it’s clear that governments and industry can make a much bigger difference in tackling climate change than a single individual ever could, and it’s important not to blame it on ” us ”for not taking action. “That said, there are a lot of things we can and must do that, at the very least, will send a signal of a desire for fundamental change to those with the greatest influence,” said Professor Newell.

Most of the types of things people can do include decisions that reduce your own emissions, he says. Typically, these focus on decisions about energy [where you get your power from and how much you use], food [the emissions associated with what you eat], and travel [public versus private, flying versus driving], and in general consume less and less sustainably [for example, buying goods that will last, or from companies who adopt circular-economy practices].

“But in addition to these actions, people can also just talk about issues, raise concerns with their elected officials, lobby for change and use whatever opportunities they have to lead within their sphere of influence. [be that at work, home, school, local clubs]”Says Professor Newell.” People can also stay informed. But how do you persuade people to tackle climate change? Professor Newell says that a persuasion approach is simply to facilitate action in a respectful way environment. “Make green energy the default option so people don’t have to think about selecting it; make carbon offsets the default when booking flights; offer packaging in cardboard and not plastic; and provide composting facilities, “he says.” All of these types of techniques aim to overcome inertia – or the status quo bias. [the desire to keep behaving in the same way] – which often hinders behavior change. “We also need to remind people that collectively these actions are making a difference – many drops fill the bucket.”

Another important way to persuade people to take action on climate change is to highlight the moral reasons for action – why people have a duty to act or why we all need to do our fair share, says Professor Newell. “For example, we all know that dumping toxic waste on someone else’s property is not justified, even if it is to the benefit of the person doing the dumping,” he says. “Likewise, if we know that greenhouse gas emissions cause harm to others by contributing to climate change, then we have a duty not to facilitate that harm, even if it is more convenient for us.

The cognitive psychology professor says people can be motivated to take action by the fair sharing argument if they can be convinced that they are unfair if they don’t join with others in making a difference. “It’s like paying taxes – people can be pressured into paying taxes if they realize that it is unfair to avoid paying while enjoying the social goods that taxes provide. [schools, hospitals] because others have done their fair share [paid what is due], “he said.” With the climate, we need to be reminded that many other people have collectively agreed to take action to reduce emissions, and so we must do the same. “If we don’t do it, we let’s act like moral free riders – taking advantage of a collective good without contributing to it – a bit like taking the bus without paying a ticket.

Professor Newell says that the benefits of this action for individuals may come simply from an increased sense of self-efficacy – or a feeling that your own actions are creating change. “A part of our previous research suggests that a crucial predictor of willingness to take action on climate change is the extent to which you think your actions can make a difference, ”he says.

Seeing the power of aggregate efforts, for example climate strikes, or at COP 26, can be powerful motivators. These questions and arguments are discussed in more detail in an upcoming article in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy by Prof. Newell and political philosopher Prof. Jeremy Moss of the UNSW School of Arts, Design and Architecture. . “Ensuring that everyone pays their fair share also has other benefits,” says Professor Moss. “Without sharing the burden [like paying for mitigation] rightly so, we risk alienating ourselves from people who might think they are bearing too much cost or not receiving enough advantages. “It is at least possible that perceptions of injustice can lead to a backlash and that people who feel they are not getting a fair deal may not support a transition and make a transition less likely to be successful.”

Professor Moss says that ultimately the benefits to consumers should come in the form of a change in government policies. “This can only happen through the actions of individual voters – and industry practices – which are often affected by shareholder sentiment,” he said. “Indeed, although companies often cite the duty to make profits for shareholders as a reason to avoid climate actions like stopping the production of fossil fuels, the duties towards the shareholders do not automatically take precedence over the duties towards the rest of the company so as not to seriously harm the climate. “Just as we do not tolerate companies that sell dangerous drugs or faulty devices for the benefit of shareholders, neither should we allow them to harm the climate for these reasons. “

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