Can We Take [Meaningful] Action On Climate Change?

Lessons from a new study by GlobeScan and IKEA on our biggest challenge: Changing our lifestyle quickly and in a meaningful way to enable us to meet the Paris Agreement goals.

Last week GlobeScan and IKEA published a climate action research report entitled “Climate action starts at home”. This in-depth study was conducted with over 14,000 customers in 14 countries, looking into what people think, feel, and do about climate change.

This report is interesting because of what’s in it as well as what is not in it. On the one hand it offers important insights on the biggest challenge we face: Changing lifestyle in a meaningful way and within short time to enable us to meet the Paris Agreement goals. On the other hand, it doesn’t refer to some key points that could have added more value to its readers.

So, what can we learn from it? Here are five key points from my perspective:

1. One culture war is over. Another one is in full swing.

In his book “How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate”, Andrew Hoffman presents an interesting narrative, “one that describes the climate change debate at its core as cultural.” He explains how the debate between those who accept climate science and those who reject it is not about scientific evidence, but about values, culture and ideology. “The debate over climate change in the United States (and elsewhere) is not about carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models; it is about opposing cultural values and worldviews through which that science is seen,” Hoffman writes.

Well, this war seems to be over. At least according to the study, which found that an overwhelming majority (86% on average) in all 14 countries included in the study believes that human activity is one of the causes of climate change. It is important to note though that in the U.S. and Australia the numbers are somewhat lower with about quarter of the population that does not believe that human activity has anything to do with climate change. Still, the global picture is very clear — almost 9 out of 10 people accept climate science.

While one culture war seems to be over, it’s important to remember that another one is far from being over. This culture war is also not so much about content (i.e. information), but about context — in this case, the speed of change. On one side you have those who exercise what Alex Steffen describes as predatory delay — “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” On the other side you have those who believe that “sustainability is speed” in Steffen’s words and that “winning slowly is the same as losing”. This is more than just an economic war — similarly to the previous war it is a fight between two worldviews: One is very much grounded in the status quo, while the other is about making it obsolete.

You won’t hear much about this war in the study, which I find somewhat disappointing. The sense of urgency and the need to have a clear timeframe for action become inseparable part of every climate discussion and individual response should be no exception.

2. In the search for stronger signals suggesting it’s actually time for change

“A belief that governments and businesses are not pulling their weight when it comes to climate change prevents people from doing more themselves. A lack of support from government is the single biggest barrier that people report. Many people also believe that other individuals are not doing their part to help tackle climate change.” (p. 15)

This finding can be interpreted in different ways — you might think for example that people just look for excuses not to take action, or perhaps that people seek fairness and want to ensure they are not taken advantage by free riders. While both interpretations may be true, I believe this goes even further — people want clear signals that we are indeed shifting into a new phase when it comes to climate change and have to act in a more decisive and urgent matter. Right now, they don’t receive such signals when most governments, businesses and other people around them continue to act with either a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset (i.e. offering almost no change), or ‘sustainability-as-usual’ mindset (i.e. offering incremental changes) at best.

While we may assume personal, business, and governmental are separate spheres, this is probably not the case. As Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna suggest: “within the context of climate change, transformation is a complex process that entails changes at the personal, cultural, organizational, institutional and systems levels…“a regime shift cannot occur without changing worldviews, institutions, and technologies together, as an integrated system” (Beddoe et al., 2009: 2484).”” We need to consider the connections between the different levels and how they impact each other. For example, we cannot expect a significant decrease in meat consumption without companies offering better plant-based alternatives, governments taxing meat to reflect its real cost and a change in social norms regarding meat consumption.

It’s also important to point out that customers cannot only demand, but also shape business and government response, from voting for parties and representatives offering progressive climate change policies to buying only from companies that adopt science-based targets.

3. People want to do something about climate change, but what exactly?

When survey participants were asked “would you be willing to make any future changes to your behaviour to help reduce climate change?” 87% on average responded that they are willing to make more effort to improve, including 22% that are willing to make a strong effort to improve.

The good news is that these numbers show that the majority of people worldwide are willing to make changes in their lifestyle based on the need to address climate change. The bad news is that it’s not clear if people actually understand what is required of them and thus how valid this finding is.

One clue to the notion that people don’t really know what is required of them can be found in another finding — 41% of the respondents said that not knowing what or how to take action is preventing them from doing more about climate change. Second, the question doesn’t go into specifics, and it’s much easier to provide positive answers to general questions — for example, it’s one thing to ask someone if she or he would be willing to make a greater effort to improve their health. It’s another thing to ask them if they’re willing to go every day to the gym.

Last but not least, let’s not forget the intention–behavior gap. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely puts it: “in the future we are wonderful people. We will be patient, we will not procrastinate, we’ll take our medication on time, we will exercise, we will eat [well]. The problem is that we never get to live in that future. We always live in the present and in the present we’re not exactly that wonderful people.”

4. Not all actions are equal

The study provides insights into the actions people take already to address climate change. At the top of the list we find recycling, home energy savings (using efficient appliances and less energy), and holiday travel (choosing alternatives to flying). At the bottom of the list we have buying second-hand items, advocacy (writing to companies, governments and talking to peers) and self-sufficiency (growing vegetables, harvesting rainwater).

This list is very interesting, especially when the data is presented across different countries. However, beyond the understanding which actions are more popular and where, it’s very difficult to assess the current state of personal activity worldwide without additional information on the impact of each action. In other words, not all actions are equal and some actions have greater impact than others. As Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas point out: ”cumulative emissions impact of any behaviour depends both on the magnitude of the action and its behavioural plasticity (the proportion of the public likely to adopt a given action assuming the most effective intervention (Dietz et al 2009)), the first step to understanding cumulative impact is to know the effectiveness of the action for a single person.”

Wynes and Nicholas divided the actions they analyzed in their research into 3 categories: high-impact actions (“reduces an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 0.8 tCO2e per year, about 5% of current annual emissions in the US or Australia”), medium-impact (0.2–0.8 tCO2e) and low-impact (<0.2 tCO2e). They found four actions to have high-impact: Avoiding air travel, living car free, eating a plant-based diet, and having smaller families. “These actions,” the researchers explain “have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (which is 4 times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (8 times less effective).”

So, should we be worried that at the top of the list we find recycling, a (very) moderate-impact action, or happy that at least it’s not a low-impact one?

5. What’s missing? Benchmark & Mint for personal carbon management

In “The Big PivotAndrew Winston uses the metaphor of a boat filling with water to describe the absurdity of our approach to companies and how much they do about climate change:

“Time is running short, and everyone needs to help bail. But how fast should we work? We could ask people in the boat how much they think they can scoop out in the next hour, and then suggest they stretch a bit. But shouldn’t we first calculate how much water we must bail to keep afloat, and then divvy up the task? It’s the only practical path, right?”

This is true for individuals as well. When we consider climate mitigation through changes in consumption we need a clear benchmark — we need to know not only what we currently do, but also how much we need to do in order to understand how far behind we are. We need to translate the Paris Agreement goals to per-capita emissions and then consider how do we get there. Girod et al. for example calculated that meeting the 2 degrees Celsius target is translated into 2.1 ton CO2e per capita in 2050. Just to give you an idea where we are now — according to the World Bank, in the U.S. the per capita emissions is around 16.5 ton CO2e. In the E.U. it’s 6.5 ton CO2e and in China it’s 7.5 CO2e.

The benchmark is important as it provides us a sense of how far we are now from the target. However, as important is the strategy of our journey to meet this target. While the Globescan/IKEA report lacks a benchmark, its insights on motivation provide some important clues on how to move forward. According to the report, “people want practical solutions that save them money, benefit their health and the health of their family, and make their daily lives easier and more convenient.” Other enablers include advice and information on what to do, a sense of community so they won’t feel alone in this journey and a way to connect their actions to a positive vision, such as helping the planet or the next generation.

Now, the question is how we transform these insights into a strategy that can offer a personalized, clear, meaningful (in terms of both the required commitment and the need to act quickly), and shared (i.e. community-based) experience? This is the $64,000 (or maybe the $26 trillion) question and while I don’t think I have the answer, I have a suggestion for a starting point: Mint.com. This web-based, free, personal financial management service, which is used by millions of users, provides an easy way to set up personal budget and financial targets and track your progress in real time. Once you connect it to all your accounts all the updates are done automatically and it is then a pretty effortless and convenient experience.

So, here’s an idea for IKEA (or any other company that is serious about climate action): How about developing Mint for personal climate management? Create a platform with all the necessary information to enable people to set up personalized carbon targets, incentivize meeting carbon targets and budgets that are aligned with the Paris Agreement goals, innovate to generate excitement around it (how about a carbon score that will replace credit score?), make it convenient and effortless as the original Mint, and finally develop a community around it to celebrate substantial climate action. Will it work? Let’s prototype and see!