Recycling and a meat-free diet won’t stop climate change. What can you do?

Climate change is not a hoax invented by the Chinese. It’s happening, whether the Trumps of the world admit it or not.

But what are we supposed to do about it? Switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs? Take shorter showers? Recycle? Eat less meat? These are “simple and painless” behaviour changes that, through one campaign or another, you’ve probably been asked to adopt. But do they actually make an impact?

“Simple and painless” behaviour changes are ones which require little effort and don’t disrupt your overall quality of life. Yes, they do require you to do something but the asks are accessible: they meet you where you’re at, without requiring you to leave your comfort zone. They make you feel good about doing good, by doing very little.

As part of the New York Times’ Paris Climate Deal coverage, they provided a short list of simple ways to reduce your carbon footprint. “You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive less by consolidating trips, waste less food and eat less meat.” Campaigns calling for changes of this sort have become ubiquitous, but the impact — both of the changes promoted and the campaigns themselves — is now being contested. As David McKay warned in his book,

“Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little [bit] helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot.”

This is not to say that your shorter showers and energy efficient light bulbs are all for nothing. It doesn’t mean that individual behaviours don’t matter, or that we are powerless in the face of climate change. It does mean that individual environmental choices that remain within the personal and private sphere have a limited impact, even when backed by the best intentions. The Simple and Painless report, commissioned by the WWF and authored by Tom Crompton and John Thøgersen, points out that, “there are significant limits on our ability to determine our personal carbon footprint. It is governments that determine the carbon intensity of the energy we use in our homes, the price and availability of different modes of transport and the relative price and carbon intensity of the goods and services that we buy…” As stand-alone actions (and even within the collective context of everyone who opts to adopt a given change) our personal pro-environmental changes do matter, but only a little. They are not enough. What we need are big changes, ones that may be uncomfortable, and ones that can’t be optional if they are to be effective.

So, if small and painless changes aren’t going to “solve” or “reverse” climate change, why do so many environmental organizations (and governmental agencies, media outlets, influencers and celebrities) keep campaigning for their adoption? This is the question the WWF sought to unpack when they commissioned their report on the limitations of “spillover” effects in environmental campaigning.

An example of a campaign, for a small and painless change, that exaggerates impact.

While our personal small and painless changes fall short on their own, it is assumed that they can “spillover,” priming us and encouraging us to do the bigger, harder, more impactful stuff. On the flip side, they may allow us to check off our “did my part” box and blind us to other, larger changes we could make. WWF’s report offers an examination of this “spillover” effect, exploring the potential for one small pro-environmental behaviour to lead to another (positive spillover) as well as the potential for a pro-environmental behavior to have the opposite effect, discouraging a person from adopting other pro-environmental behaviours (negative spillover).

After digging into cognitive dissonance, contribution ethic, causal clarity, self-perception, attitude change, normalization, messaging, and more, the report generally concludes: positive spillover is possible, but is not as likely or frequent as campaigners would hope and, even when it works, it doesn’t work well enough.

The phenomenon of positive pro-environmental spillover can only be expected under limited circumstances. In order for it to work, behaviour changes must be motivated by pro-environmental values and linked to a person’s sense of morals and identity. If someone switches to energy efficient light bulbs primarily for the savings on their energy bill, for example, positive spillover can’t be expected, because their behaviour wasn’t motivated by the environment in the first place. If a change is motivated by both environmental concerns and a personal benefit like savings, it could actually decrease the likelihood that a person adopts additional environmental changes that don’t come with a personal reward (because they’ve been conditioned to expect one).

Self-perception is also key to positive spillover because if pro-environmental values are not key to a person’s identity and morals, they won’t feel the imperative to adopt more pro-environmental changes, and when they dismiss other environmental behaviours it will in no way undermine their sense of self. A 2014 Pew Survey revealed that well under half of millennials, Gen X-ers and Boomers described themselves as Environmentalists — which is a blow to anyone banking on positive pro-environmental spillover as the path to the larger changes we need to combat climate change.

Evidence also shows that positive spillover tends to work only between “small and painless” behavior changes of equal or comparable difficulty. So, while a person who switches to more environmentally friendly light bulbs can be expected to later install a smart thermostat, it is unlikely that these changes would motivate them to make a harder one, like switching from driving a car to taking public transit.

Positive spillover phenomenon coexists with negative spillover. One person who recycles might begin to use reusable bottles (positive spillover) but another person who recycles may say “I recycle, so it’s okay to consume bottled water” (negative spillover). Negative spillover is caused by several factors, including the “contribution ethic.” Contribution ethic is at play when someone dismisses a pro-environmental behaviour because they are already engaged in another pro-environmental behavior, leading them to feel they don’t need to change other behaviors because they are already “doing their part.”

Contribution ethic can be quite dangerous. When it is paired with the wide-held misconception that simple and painless private sphere behavioural changes are enough to tackle the big hairy issue of climate change, people are less likely to support bigger, more uncomfortable, more impactful government interventions, because they see them as unnecessary. Even those who are awake to the reality that painless personal sphere changes aren’t enough may feel that it’s not their responsibility to push for more impactful changes, because they’re already doing their part, however small it may be.

The WWF report takes the stance that small lifestyle changes by individuals are not nearly enough for us, as a race, to fight climate change. It categorically criticises governments for “failing to respond properly to today’s environmental challenges” and makes clear that now is the time that government intervention and “fundamental changes in behaviour are urgently needed.” But it also makes the point that we can’t just blame the government. The blame falls also with ourselves. If, in a best case scenario, the government is representative of and for its people, the government’s failure can be linked to a lack of public pressure for pro-environmental interventions and/or an active resistance to them.

The WWF report thus suggests that environmental campaigns should work to “generate and mobilise public pressure for change” and for “ambitious new government intervention.”

Bill Gates has been rightfully criticized for arguing that we need “energy miracles” to get out of the catastrophic mess that is climate change. As Paul Krugman pointed out, “…we’ve already had that miracle: the cost of electricity generated by wind and sun has dropped dramatically, while costs of storage, crucial to making renewables fully competitive with conventional energy, are plunging as we speak.” It’s not divine intervention that will prevent climate change, but government intervention and, as Krugman calls out with regard to the United States, “a president willing to act and a Supreme Court that won’t stand in that president’s way, sacrificing the planet in the name of conservative ideology.” As citizens, we have the agency to influence the government, by demonstrating public demand for such environmental policies, by voting for candidates who’d implement them, and by accepting them — even when they inconvenience us.

It’s a temporary downer to acknowledge the inadequacy of campaigns past and of our own efforts to “live sustainably” as individuals. For those of us who’ve adopted some (or all) of the small personal changes asked for us, it can be discouraging to see that despite our personal efforts climate change is persisting. But on the other hand, DUH! We shouldn’t be surprised. We keep making small changes and expecting big outcomes. The behaviour changes themselves may vary (recycling, reusable bottles, eating less meat) but we essentially keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome (insanity, in Einstein’s words). The good news is that when we become aware of the fact that small and painless behaviour changes don’t cut it, we can be emboldened to step up to the challenge of doing something bigger, and yes, maybe more painful.

While the majority of WWF’s Simple & Painless report is spent convincing us of the limitations of spillover and unpacking the psychological considerations of campaigns, it also includes the bigger call to action we need and clearly outlines the types of behaviours we can adopt to “do our part.” If you’ve switched to energy efficient light bulbs, are taking shorter showers, eating less meat and recycling because you hold pro-environmental values (or just a rational fear of climate change), keep doing all of that. But now, step up, do more.

A 1999 study on social movements in the Human Ecology Review made it clear that “Public support is one of the most important resources social movements mobilize in their efforts to overcome cultural inertia and the interests of powerful actors.” Beyond our personal, private sphere changes, there are three key types of support, called out in the WWF report, that we can actively engage with for greater impact:

  • “passive acceptance of public policies that may depart from the promotion of immediate self-interest”: i.e. vote for the politicians and political parties that have pro-environmental policies on their agendas — especially those that involve regulation or taxation.
  • “low-commitment active citizenship”: i.e. write letters to your elected officials and ask for pro-environmental changes. You can contribute financially to groups or candidates working to advance pro-environmental policies.
  • “committed public activism”: i.e. get out on the street to demonstrate and demand pro-environmental change.

Al Gore recently gave an optimistic TED Talk on climate change. In it, he asked three core questions: “must we change? …can we change? [and] …will we change?” His answer to all three was an enthusiastic yes. While addressing the question of whether or not we will change, he said, “We are solving this crisis. The only question is: how long will it take to get there? So, it matters that a lot of people are organizing to insist on this change. Almost 400,000 people marched in New York City before the UN special session on this. Many thousands, tens of thousands, marched in cities around the world.” We know that change is needed. We know that change is possible. We know that our personal sphere behaviour changes aren’t enough, and we know that the bigger changes are urgently needed. It’s time to push for them, support them, and to accept them when they come.