How Moderation Could Accelerate Climate Action

How can we feed 10 billion people with a healthy diet that doesn’t wreck the planet? The answer, offered by the EAT-Lancet Commission in a newly released report, is dubbed the ‘planetary health diet’ and comes with a surprise: It doesn’t completely banish animal products. While it advocates that we get a greater share of our protein from plants, it allows for moderate consumption of meat, fish, dairy products and other animal-derived foods.

At first, what I call a surprise may seem like no big deal. After all, the EAT-Lancet Commission joins the canon of the sustainability literature in advocating a shift toward diets dominated by plant-based proteins. I would argue, however, that the way the Commission is approaching the topic comes with much greater promise for impact because it calls for moderation and doesn’t mandate that we give up animal products altogether.

I have long held the view that approaches emphasizing less instead of none stand a greater chance of triggering climate action. People find it easier to subscribe to an approach focused on reducing consumption than to one advocating the complete elimination of a practice. Food consumption is a prime example: While many people struggle with the idea of going vegetarian (let alone vegan), most are open to consider foregoing meat from time to time. Choosing the vegetarian option at a restaurant every so often is more appealing to the masses than giving up the Thanksgiving Day turkey or the Super Bowl barbecue for good. Or consider travel: It will be hard to make people stop flying altogether, but many might consider traveling less or spending their next vacation closer to home.

The reason why people prefer moderation over absolutism can be traced to the concepts of identity and values. Most people in western societies have grown up on diets containing significant fractions of meat, fish, and dairy products, and many derive joy and pride from their country’s signature dishes: American hamburgers, German sausages, British fish and chips, French pot-au-feu, Austrian Wiener Schnitzel, and Italian ossobuco. They will treat any attempt of taking these pleasures away from them as a direct attack on their identity. Moreover, people are careful to subscribe to lifestyles that rub off on their identity. Vegetarians and vegans often strongly identify with their dietary habits and derive self-worth and pride from it. While that’s a positive force for the converts, it can be off-putting to those considering a lifestyle change. People may be open to behave like a vegetarian, but they don’t necessarily want to be one.

Absolutism also sits at odds with many people’s value system. The political culture in most western societies is deeply rooted in the political philosophy of liberalism. Banishing animal products curtails liberty and the freedom of choice. Of course, there is no absolute freedom of choice in any modern democracy. Governments are tasked to regulate the activities of its citizens so that everybody can live in harmony and prosperity. Much like alcohol and tobacco, animal products would technically be easy to regulate. But given that animal-based foods are staples of western societies, it is all but inconceivable that any such proposal would garner enough popular support. Just consider the outcry that proposals advocating meat-free days in canteens is causing at regular intervals. There is another reason why regulating animal products would be so contentious: meat eaters despise vegetarians because they feel judged by them as morally inferior. This phenomenon is more generally known as the do-gooder derogation, and in the world of dietary habits there is even a special word for it: vegaphobia.

Moderation as a behavioral construct elegantly solves for these problems. It moves the dialog out of the realms of ideology and morality and into the sphere of pragmatism and agency. It offers choice without restricting liberty. It decouples behavior from identity. And it preserves culture without compromising sustainability. Moderation also carries the promise of reaching a greater audience: People will listen more if they don’t see the messenger as a missionary.

Some may argue that simply curbing animal product consumption, as opposed to eliminating it altogether, will not deliver enough greenhouse gas savings. Of course, moderation will only work if it gets us far enough along the spectrum between ‘too much’ and ‘good enough’. But demanding a zero-consumption policy will not necessarily move us further or faster along that spectrum. In fact, absolutism can cause inaction because its idealistic demands often paralyze people. In contrast, calls for moderation are more likely to trigger a shift in mindset and generate the momentum necessary to discuss more ambitious lifestyle changes further down the road. In some sense, moderation-based approaches are a bit like a catalyst in chemistry, lowering activation energy and accelerating reaction rates. They also hold the promise of engaging some of the most recalcitrant parts of our society, those who most fiercely resist a change of the status quo.

So how can we better leverage moderation as a paradigm of change to spur climate action?

First, we must accept that absolutist proposals are unlikely to find broad popular support in today’s political zeitgeist. There may be sound scientific arguments for absolutist positions, but people are so attached to some of their lifestyle choices that extreme positions often breed resentment and resistance. We stand a greater chance of bringing them along if our proposals don’t threaten their identities and values.

In the same vein, we should revisit the way in which we speak about the climate challenge. In recent years, the tone used in climate change communications has become much more vigorous and resolute. This is as much a result of our growing understanding of the perils we face as it is a reflection of the mounting frustration of scientists, journalists and NGOs over our lack of progress. Strong and sharp language conveys a sense of urgency and attracts greater attention, but it also creates a politico-philosophical landscape that is more accommodative to radical policy suggestions than to moderate ones. ‘We are facing imminent catastrophe and must stop flying immediately!’ is more coherent than ‘We are facing imminent catastrophe and suggest you start taking the train every once in a while!’. Softening our tone may sound counter-intuitive given the terrifying consequences of a warming planet, but if we let language restrict our toolbox for addressing a problem, we will miss opportunities to generate impact.

Second, we should revisit the use of numerical targets in anchoring the climate debate. Over the years since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the problem of ‘preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’ has been translated into a multitude of quantitative aspirations such as the ‘well below 2 degrees’ goal and the 1 trillion-ton emissions limit. These numbers are powerful because they translate an abstract problem into an actionable policy objective. The downside is that they create a frame of reference that is hard to escape. Everything needs to be measured, planned, and tracked against these targets.

This is particularly true for policy recommendations, which must identify and propose decarbonization pathways compatible with a ‘well below 2 degrees’ world. The only way to do so, given the ambition level of these goals, is to suggest drastic and often absolutist measures. This may be a sensible approach if there is a decent chance of success. Unfortunately, the world is not on track to reach the objectives of the Paris Agreement. But because these numerical targets have become entrenched heuristics, the global debate around climate action continues to be dominated by the most radical options. More moderate proposals are often pushed to the fringes or dismissed as ‘not ambitious enough’. The result is paralysis and, again, missed opportunity. De-emphasizing numerical targets would allow us to reframe the climate challenge from a math problem to a behavioral issue and give us access to the entire toolbox at our disposal for unlocking behavioral change, including moderation.

And finally, we need to expand our understanding of the scope for moderation in other emission areas. At the moment, the cautionary principle leads us to adopt a bias for absolutist positions. But climate change is about proportions, not absolutes. There is no scientific argument for an absolute elimination of any particular lifestyle choice. Global warming will exacerbate as a function of net greenhouse gas emissions, as assessed across all planetary emission sources and sinks. As long as we keep a balance between emission sources and sinks, we can continue to hold on to our portfolio of lifestyle choices without eliminating any — we just have to reduce the frequency with which we engage in some of them. If we develop a better understanding of the different bundles of goods and services compatible with planetary boundaries, we will be able to introduce approaches of moderation in those areas that are particularly difficult to decarbonize, such as meat consumption and air travel.

Choosing moderation means preferring realism over idealism. Policy recommendations emphasizing moderation over absolutism stand a greater chance of reaching and engaging the masses. I hope we start adopting moderation as a paradigm of change more widely in addressing climate change.