Greta Is Right: Study Shows Individual Lifestyle Change Boosts Systemic Climate Action

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The climate movement has been riven lately by a debate pitting individual lifestyle change against systemic change, as if the two compete.

Many experts contend both are needed, and new research links them even more closely. The public is more likely to support systemic action, the study finds, if those advocating it have a low carbon footprint.

“It is really important that scientists, or other messengers who communicate with the public, model those behaviors that reduce carbon emissions to drive their point home,” one of the authors, Professor Elke Weber, said in an interview released yesterday by Princeton University.

“Our new research showed that the carbon footprints of those communicating the science not only affects their credibility, but also affects audience support for the public policies for which the communicators advocated,” said Weber, the associate director for education at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

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The study, titled “Climate change communicators’ carbon footprints affect their audience’s policy support,” may explain why Greta Thunberg has succeeded more than others at communicating the climate crisis and galvanizing social action. Thunberg has insisted on individual change—and modeled it—while advocating systemic change.

“The implications of these results are stark,” the authors write in the journal Climatic Change. “Effective communication of climate science and advocacy of both individual behavior change and public policy interventions are greatly helped when advocates lead the way by reducing their own carbon footprint.”

Recently Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann warned that climate denialists are exploiting calls for individual action to distract from the need for systemic change. Some writers interpreted this argument to pit Mann against Thunberg, but in fact, Mann, an ardent supporter of Thunberg, merely argued that individual action cannot replace systemic.

Some, however, are waiting for systemic to replace individual. Axios energy reporter Amy Harder recently confessed  her carbon footprint and suggested she would not reduce it before systemic change occurs.

“I’m not losing sleep over my flying and eating habits,” she writes, calling for governments to enact economic policies to change those habits, “and I’ll only make big changes if the price tags get a lot bigger.”

This study suggests Harder undermines her own message:

“We find that people are more likely to support policies if the advocate for these policies has a low carbon footprint,” they write. “Our new finding is that their carbon footprint also affects audience support for public policies advocated by the communicator.”

But it’s not too late, the researchers point out, for Harder to boost her impact by flying less and eating less meat:

“In a second study, we show that the negative effects of a large carbon footprint on credibility are greatly reduced if the communicator reforms their behavior by reducing their personal carbon footprints.”

Led by Shahzeen Z. Attari at Indiana University, the researchers presented 3,600 participants with one of six policy proposals:

  1. Regulate CO2 emissions
  2. Tax CO2 emissions
  3. Increase generation of nuclear power
  4. Stabilize human population
  5. Increase renewable energy
  6. Enhance infrastructure for public transit

Initially the participants expressed support for each policy. They favored increasing renewable energy the most and stabilizing human population the least, but support for all six began neutral or higher.

Then the researchers described the advocates of these proposals as having either a high or low carbon footprint, based on home energy use, and again assessed participants’ support.

“High personal home energy use not only reduces researcher credibility,” they found, “but also reduces support for the policy advocated by the researcher.”

The study has implications for advocates and communicators in general.

“Advocates for energy conservation and for policies that reduce carbon emissions must expect ad hominem arguments based on their own energy use. Such arguments are probably best countered personally, by leading the way and demonstrating how to act in concordance with one’s own beliefs and recommendations, and by being an exemplar others can follow, rather than relying primarily on communicating scientific facts about global warming and its risks.”

[“source=forbes”]