Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

But the warnings from scientists about the dangers of a warmer world (and the inadequacy of existing climate policies) have become shriller by the year. And as a result, the voices whispering that geoengineering could one day become a reality have grown harder to ignore.

As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions.

One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”

In general, people who are wealthier have bigger carbon footprints. Our findings suggest that people with bigger carbon footprints may treat geoengineering as an excuse to avoid personal behavioural changes. People in the study who held pro-environmental values didn’t see themselves as susceptible to the moral hazard, but feared that other people – and especially politicians – would take their eye off the ball if geoengineering was on the horizon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change sceptics were not particularly worried that geoengineering would distract attention from other climate policies. After all, if someone doesn’t support policies to tackle climate change in the first place, then the moral hazard of geoengineering is really not a hazard at all.

Previous research has suggested, though, that geoengineering could be more appealing to sceptics than existing climate policies (as it doesn’t involve regulating industries or government intervention in people’s daily lives) or that it could even galvanise support for climate change among this group.

But our findings did not back this. Learning about geoengineering from the information provided in our study didn’t alter levels of concern about climate change among sceptical participants.

This is the first time that any systematic evidence has been produced on how this key aspect of the geoengineering debate will shape the public discourse as it moves into the mainstream. What seems clear is that people with different values (and views on climate change) will respond to the logic of the moral hazard argument in very different ways.

For those deeply worried by society’s inadequate response to climate change, and doubtful of politicians’ commitment to the issue, the moral hazard of geoengineering confirms their worst fears.

But for people with an inconveniently large carbon footprint – or those who had no intention of reducing it in the first place – the prospect of geoengineering could be less a of a moral hazard and more of a ‘moral license’ to continue with business as usual.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian.


Don’t give up on engaging conservatives

Paul Connor argues that social psychology findings give hope that conservative audiences can be engaged on climate change.

This guest post is by Paul Connor, a postgraduate researcher in social psychology at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on climate change communication and pro-environmental cultural change processes.

There is little doubt that the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarised along political lines over the past decade. Yet despite this trend, it remains important for climate advocates to remember that this party-line split is far from absolute. In both Australia and the USA, for example, one in four conservative voters still accepts the basic tenets of climate change science, and as the following research suggests, there may be ways of tailoring climate messages to increase their appeal to such audiences.

System-Sanctioned Change

In their 2010 paper, Irina Feygina of New York University and colleagues explored the connection between environmental attitudes and a psychological tendency known as ‘system justification’. This is a  tendency strongly related to conservative political attitudes to defend society’s status quo and see ‘the way things are’ as ‘the ways things should be’. Across two experiments, results showed system justification to be correlated with the denial of environmental problems. Indeed, the extent to which people reported holding system justifying beliefs largely (but not totally) explained the connection between people’s political orientation and their environmental denial.

Following this, Feygina and colleagues presented people with a generic message about the environment, and some of them also a ‘system-sanctioned change’ message, which read:

“Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources”.

While results showed that there was no overall difference between the ‘system sanctioned’ message and the normal message in promoting pro-environmental intentions and behaviours, the system-sanctioned message was significantly more effective among people high in system justification. The authors concluded that: “…reframing environmentalism as supporting (rather than undermining) the American way or life eliminates the negative effect of system justification on pro-environmental behavior”.

Co-Benefits Framing

A 2012 study by Paul Bain from the University of Queensland and colleagues explored whether climate change sceptics could perhaps be sold on climate change action by stressing its possible co-benefits in addition to mitigating climate change. They presented a large sample of people (including 128 climate sceptics) one of three ‘personal testimonials’ relating different reasons for supporting climate action.

The first suggested climate action would create a friendlier society (“I think it’d make us more considerate in other ways – like looking out for each other, and caring for people in the community”). The second suggested it would promote societal development (“Taking action to reduce energy pollution would lead to new scientific breakthroughs and new industries”). And the third suggested it would prevent environmental destruction (“We’d be less affected by food and water shortages”).

As expected, results showed that the testimonials promoting the co-benefits of climate change action produced significantly higher pro-environmental intentions among the sceptics than the testimonial focused on environmental destruction. Moreover, the co-benefits testimonials were also more effective in producing environmental citizenship intentions even among the climate change believers (though this effect did not reach statistical significance).

Stressing the Consensus

Research indicates that the public vastly underestimates the level of consensus around climate change science. A 2011 study in the USA found that among its 751 participants, 66% could be classified as ‘consensus not understood’. Moreover, the results showed that there was a strong correlation between people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus around climate change and their support for climate change policies, with people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus were shown to explain nearly 60% of the variance in their support for climate policies.

Extending upon these findings, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and colleagues investigated the effects of increasing people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus. They began by asking people how many out of 100 climate scientists they believed endorsed the consensus view. Following this, they provided half of the people with information about the factual 97% scientific consensus on climate change.

They then asked again about people’s climate beliefs, as well as their endorsement of ‘free-market’ ideology, which is known to be related to lower belief in climate change. Results showed that providing the consensus information had a large effect.

On the follow-up questioning, the group that received the consensus information showed significantly higher belief in climate change than the group not provided the consensus information. In addition, while endorsement of free market capitalism displayed its normal correlation with lower belief in climate change among the group who did not receive the consensus information, among the people who received the consensus information there was no such correlation.

The authors concluded that “the role of ideology was drastically attenuated when participants were provided with information about the scientific consensus”. These studies indicate that climate activists do not necessarily need to give up on conservative-minded demographics. Instead, they show us that by keeping in mind the arguments and frames that appeal to conservatives, the non-climate related benefits of climate action, and the importance of an accurate understanding of the scientific consensus, there are ways of subtly tailoring communications that will be more effective among more conservative audiences.

Download COIN’s report on engaging with conservative audiences here.

Unsustainable practices: why electric cars are a failure of ambition

In this guest post by Nicola Spurling and Dan Welch, of the Sustainable Practices Research Group, they argue that a focus on ‘techno-fix’ solutions to climate change like electric cars simply perpetuate current (unsustainable) practices and represent a failure of ambition.

In this guest post by Nicola Spurling and Dan Welch, of the Sustainable Practices Research Group, they argue that a focus on ‘techno-fix’ solutions to climate change like electric cars simply perpetuate current (unsustainable) practices and represent a failure of ambition.

In January David Cameron announced that his cabinet might trade in their limousines for electric cars. It was the latest in a stream of initiatives to promote the use of electric vehicles.

Is this a welcome case of political leaders ‘setting an example’? Or are these sorts of interventions more likely to perpetuate current patterns of private car use than challenge them?

The announcement is another example of the common ‘techno-fix’ approach to climate change – in which futuristic technologies resolve the problem while everyday life carries on as normal. Electric cars are especially alluring in this respect. Except that electric cars won’t simply replace fossil fuel driven cars. Firstly, their limited range means they only fulfill some of the functions of the conventional car. Secondly, as a recent OECD report suggests , they will only save carbon emissions in the context of a massively de-carbonised electricity supply system re-engineered to cope with increased demand.

Retaining private car use by substituting petrol for electric vehicles just reproduces the ‘predict and provide’ approaches of transport planning developed in the 70s and 80s – in which rising levels of demand are perpetuated, normalised and inadvertently encouraged. But if this is the case, then what alternative approaches to policy are there?

The work of the Sustainable Practices Research Group begins to address this challenge. Our starting point is that we largely consume resources as part of the practices that make up everyday life – like driving, cooking or doing the laundry. So rather than the obsession with perpetuating demand for the private car, how about investing more to substitute the practice of driving for a more sustainable one, such as cycling?

The recent TfL investment in ‘quietways’, cycle ‘superhighways’ and ‘mini Hollands’  is commendable here. The idea of ‘modal shift’ – or changing mode of transport – is not a new one: park and ride schemes or the London congestion charging scheme aim to do just that. But a social practice perspective casts the issue in a new light.

For example, many initiatives funded by the Local Sustainable Transport Fund  have aimed to shift short trips (under five miles) from driving to walking and cycling. Although the objective is one of substitution, the interventions tend to focus just on ‘growing’ the practice of cycling. Seldom is the potential of ‘shrinking’ driving part of such initiatives. If the aim is modal shift, making one alternative easier and more attractive than the other makes sense: seeking to reduce demand for driving rather than catering for (assumed) increased demand.

Taking the debate a step further, why focus on trip length as the main characteristic of the journeys that we make? Rather, we could ask what everyday practices are served by these trips?

Picking up the kids from school, commuting or going shopping present very different forms of driving, most obviously, they require different amounts of space for passengers and goods. As such there is not just one, but rather multiple cycling alternatives. These might require a variety of bike accessories, and more broadly, secure storage, the skills to cycle in different kinds of traffic and with a range of loads (children, shopping) and workplace showers.  Identifying the kinds of journeys helps us understand the suitable components of cycling that might encourage a shift from driving.  Manchester’s Cycling Hub  takes such an approach to commuter cycling. Close to the railway station, it also provides secure storage, showers, a bike shop offering servicing, and cycle skills training. Intervening to ensure the availability of multiple cycling alternatives is an opportunity for policy.

The focus on substitution challenges the need for the private car in a way that focusing on decarbonising driving does not. However, it still doesn’t question why and how the need to move around so much and so often has come to be as it is. Taking the example of shopping, having grown up in the 70s and 80s, it seems that owning a private car is the prerequisite of provisioning a family home. Actually this ‘need’ is the outcome of a historical process which includes the development of out-of-town supermarkets and associated forms of land use, the rise of the car, the decline of high street shops and the gradual shift in shopping habits and routines.

Not only is the ‘need’ for the private car something that should be within the realm of policy intervention, the ‘need’ for current patterns of mobility per se should be there too. This is not as radical as it first appears. The planners of England’s ‘new towns’ in the 1950s and 1960s designed particular ideas of ‘the good life’ into their plans, including cycling infrastructures linking quiet housing areas each with its own facilities. This is a more ambitious approach to policy than seeking to respond to a spurious notion of ‘demand’, but an ambition more commensurate with the scale of the challenge of transition towards sustainability.

That ambition should encompass intervening in the conventions of practice and place which shape and govern our lives. Our categorisations of practice and place appear normal and ‘natural’ to us because of their long histories of co-evolution, institutionalization and standardisation. But they can be redesigned in new and innovative ways, which we argue, have implications for mobility.

The example of mobility reflects a more general tendency in sustainability policy of catering to an imagined future which simply extrapolates from the present. Not only does this represent a failure of ambition – to imagine a genuinely different future – it misunderstands social and technical change. Technological and social change mutually condition one another:  social practices and technologies co-evolve.

The future is never a simple extrapolation of the present. A future in which electric vehicles replace the demand for the conventional car would be a future in which electrical vehicles (with shorter ranges, long charging times and a radically new electricity infrastructure) would themselves change the practices that underpin that demand. Approaching policy from the perspective of social practices, we suggest, offers novel ways to reconfigure patterns of consumption in more sustainable directions.

Focusing on driving, eating and the home, The Sustainable Practices Research Group Report: Interventions in Practice: Reframing Policy Approaches to Consumer Behaviour can be downloaded from:  http://www.sprg.ac.uk/projects-fellowships/theoretical-development-and-integration/interventions-in-practice—sprg-report.

Nicola Spurling is Senior Research Associate in the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University. Her research is about how social practices change, and the part that individual lives, institutions, professions and policy play in these processes. She was previously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group at the University of Manchester.

Dan Welch is a Research Associate at the Sustainable Consumption Institute, the University of Manchester. His research explores the use of theories of practice for addressing sustainable consumption and production. He was previously a researcher in the Sustainable Practices Research Group.

Time to stop obsessing about scientific uncertainty?

Human behaviour is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others

For fans of probability, confidence intervals and margins of error, climate change is a dream come true. For everyone else, the fact that uncertainty (inherent in any complex area of science) has gradually become one of climate change’s defining features is a constant headache. Because uncertainty – real or manufactured – is a well-rehearsed reason for inaction.

What proportion of scientists agree that human activity is changing the climate? How sensitive is the climate to carbon emissions? Is it very likely or merely likely that flooding will increase? And what does likely mean anyway?

Questions such as these have become a stick with which to beat climate models. Scientists (naturally reticent in their communicative style) feel obliged to reel off lists of things they don’t know, and forget to re-emphasise the (remarkably certain) link between human behaviour and climate change.

The precautionary principle (slippery concept that it is), rests on the idea that less-than-complete knowledge is no reason for inaction. But spreading doubt, playing down the scientific consensus, and focusing obsessively on uncertainties has been the central strategy of climate sceptics, following the helpful example of the tobacco industry before them.

Clearly, there is much that could be done to improve the communication of uncertainty. Scientists could focus on the knowns before the unknowns. Communicators could re-frame the issue as one of risk, a concept familiar from the insurance industry, rather than uncertainty. Verbal statements of uncertainty could be accompanied by numerical figures, to overcome individual and cultural biases in their interpretation.

But there is also only so much that refining our communication of uncertainty will achieve. Because while we obsess over solar flares and natural cycles, we overlook the single biggest uncertainty in the climate system: us.

Fundamentally, the amount of carbon dioxide that we emit over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which the climate changes. Unlikely as it is, the climate may yet reveal itself to be relatively insensitive to the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases that we have pumped into it.

But even on the lowest credible estimates of climate sensitivity, burning half of our known reserves of fossil fuels will unleash unprecedented changes in the chemistry of our planet. So what we choose to do – and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it – is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.

The conclusion that it is us – rather than the climate – that is the most intractable source of uncertainty is the central theme in a new paper by Antony Patt and Elke Weber. They argue that our tendency to prioritise daily personal experiences over statistical learning, and our existing political views have a far greater influence on people’s views about climate change than than the error bars on scientists’ graphs.

Both the authors have spent a great deal of time analysing ways of improving the communication of uncertainty within climate science. So it is all the more intriguing that they write:

“Perceptions about the existence and extent of climate change may vary less as a result of how climate risks are communicated, and more as a result of whether solutions are portrayed as possible … (F)or people to support these policies in the first place, it is not sufficient and may not even be necessary for them to perceive climate change as a problem.”

In other words, uncertainty about the science is likely to dissipate in the face of meaningful engagement with effective climate solutions. When people feel inspired by the answers to climate change, they no longer see uncertainty about future predictions as the central question. But the longer the climate discourse is mired in the intricacies of uncertainty, the less likely it is that this kind of transformation will take place.

It is a difficult message for scientists to take on board – the careful communication of uncertainty is a central plank of their training. But the evidence continues to grow that the barriers preventing effective climate policies reside primarily with us (rather than the uncertain predictions of climate science). And the focus on finding the perfect method of communicating uncertainty may in fact be simply reinforcing the sceptics’ framing of the problem.

First published by Guardian Sustainable Business on 31.01.14