While environmental advocates urge individuals to reduce their carbon footprint by taking small, simple actions, others argue that individual actions are irrelevant. Do such actions have meaningful impact on the global systems that drive severe weather? Or is policy—corporate and government—the only thing that will make a real difference?
Gernot Wagner, PhD economist at Environmental Defense Fund and author of But Will the Planet Notice?, used an example of the iconic plastic bag to underline the importance of policy. In 2001, he said, Ireland passed a 15 euro cent bag tax, and within a year the use of plastic bags decreased 90%. Washington, in 2010, passed a 5 cent disposable bag tax—for both paper and plastic—and within a year disposable bag use decreased by 80%. “The naming and shaming business, the old-school environmental approach, didn’t work until we passed this kind of policy. Tiny tiny fees that are making a huge difference.”
Glen Low, principal at Blue Skye, stated that about 45% of what we do every day is embedded habit with no conscious decision-making. “So in the corporate world,” he said, “it’s all about creating just enough new behavior, or new incentives, a disruption in critical thinking patterns, to have someone think again.” He spoke of a key target audience: a pregnant woman, specifically in the second trimester of her pregnancy. “If you look at moms and moms to be,” he said, “they care with this aura of what’s emanating out from the body. What they put in their body, priority one; what they put on their body, priority two; what they put in their family and their home, priority three. Then you extend concentric circles out to community.” He went on to say that, If you can get them in just this spot, “where you have this heightened sensitivity of the kinds of products you put on your baby, for example, it is an inflection point in behavior, and it’s disruptive.”
In response, Wagner agreed that yes, his family’s buying behavior did change 23 months ago when his baby was born. However, he sees the greater impact in influencing such behavior at the policy level. As example, he said that American Airlines offered him a $20 option to offset his flight emissions on his flight to San Francisco from New York. “The trick is to use these exact same types of nudges, incentive mechanisms, behavioral options, default mechanisms, at the policy level to then change overall flying behavior; for example, make everyone who buys a ticket pay for the full pollution cost of that flight.” He later added an example about Mayor Blumberg putting in 300 miles of bike paths in New York City, which enabled Wagner to continue to ride his bike safely. “The end result has to be the policy. If there’s any kind of substitution between the two, I’d much rather go for the policy action than for getting yet another New Yorker to bike to work.”
According to Christopher Jones, co-chair at Behavior, Energy & Climate Change Conference and researcher with CoolClimate Network, “The way single action bias works is through cognitive dissonance. What’s happening is, you have a conception about yourself, and your actions are not in line with your self-concept, so that creates this cognitive dissonance. So you want to do the quickest thing you can to alleviate that problem and move on to the next thing.” He also spoke of a countervailing theory that once you take one action, “something almost magical happens. It changes the way you think about yourself and your own identity.” As an example, if you didn’t care about energy efficiency, but you purchase one compact light bulb, now you think, I do care about this. And “you’re much more likely to take additional action in the future.” He pointed to compelling research cases on this topic and added that, on the individual level, “it’s important to work within your own spheres of influence, where you feel you can make the strongest impact.”