In recent weeks, I have referred frequently to a scene in The West Wing. In it, the pollster Joey Lucas explains to deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman why her competitor’s polling on an amendment to prevent flag burning is meaningless. Sure, people care about people burning the stars and stripes. But how much do they care? Not enough to change their voting behaviour.
Ask people whether they care about climate change and these days and all but the most hardcore science-denier will tell you that they do. But how much do they care? Is it enough to take action? The evidence would suggest not.
The Green Party increased its share of the vote in 2019 by a dramatic 60%. But this was a high point in an otherwise largely negative sea of statistics about our environmental behaviour in areas of free choice. Recycling rates? Down. Flights? Up.
We are driving fewer miles than we were two decades ago, but this behaviour is largely enforced rather than selected, by rising fuel prices and a harsher tax regime on company cars.
In fact, you can argue that most of our better behaviour is driven not by a desire to save the planet (or more accurately, ourselves), but by enforcement and changing cultural norms. How much has the rise of veganism to do with planetary impact and how much is it driven by celebrity and influencer-led fashions? I lean towards the latter having a much greater impact than the former.
If we accept the reality of the climate crisis then why are we so unwilling to change our behaviour to avert disaster? Do we not care about our children, and their children?
The answer starts with our poor understanding of risk. Like Father Dougal, we are unable to differentiate things that are small and close and things that are large and far away. However great the climate threat might be, it feels distant, even while Australia is burning. It feels abstract compared to many other threats, real and imagined. Threats to our safety from terrorism. More prosaic threats to our livelihood and immediate comfort and welfare.
Repeated efforts to shock people into action have failed. Government actions have been effective, but limited. I believe government could, and should, do a lot more. Truly addressing the climate crisis requires massive capital investment with very long-term returns and only governments can do that. But so far, they have chosen to use few of the levers of power at their disposal. Companies have responded, some faster than others, largely positively. None worth mentioning any longer tries to ignore or deny the reality facing us. But the reasons why they have responded are perhaps educational for how we change consumer behaviour.
Companies have responded for three reasons. Firstly, because they are led, for the most part, by smart humans who care about the lives of their workers and their own families. Secondly, because these same leaders recognised that not to respond would risk their long-term viability. It doesn’t matter what business you are in, sooner or later climate change is going to have an impact. And thirdly, because it became profitable to do so.
Despite what the climate change deniers might say, climate change is not a job and wealth creation conspiracy. But some of the technologies and business behaviours most suited to a zero-carbon future are now well aligned to improved business performance. Renewable energy is cheaper than any other source. Flexible working drives greater productivity. Digital communications drive greater reach.
Companies are changing their behaviour because ultimately, what their leaders want to do is aligned with not just their long-term interests, but with their short-term interests as well. They didn’t act earlier and faster because this wasn’t yet the case.
I believe the same is true for consumers. If we want consumers and indeed governments to change their behaviour, then we must seek to achieve the same alignment.
Clues as to how to do this emerge from those places where behaviour change is already taking place. Look, for example, at the success of Tesla in 2019. Why do people choose a Tesla? Is it because EVs are better for the environment? Or is it because they are better cars? Cleaner, quicker, cheaper to run, and safer for those around you. A Tesla fulfils the demands of your conscience to think about the future AND meets those more immediate needs and desires.
The same is true of solar panels on the roof and battery storage. But these technologies will only reach a proportion of the population – a proportion who probably still only recycle 40% of their waste and take a lot of flights. How can we extend good behaviour across all their activities, and put such changes within the reach of the rest of the population?
The answer is not in social compulsion. We’ve demonstrated effectively that that doesn’t work in this scenario. And it won’t without either the introduction of a totalitarian regime or a massive swing in attitudes from the rest of the country. Do we really want to be a nation of curtain-twitchers?
Much better in my eyes is to make these net luxuries – energy security, clean, quiet travel, a warm home, lower energy bills – available to all.
Is this a Corbynite green manifesto?
I don’t believe so. There’s definitely an element of Keynesian investment required – something the government does not seem opposed to with its planned ~£100bn investment in HS2*. This will require big money aimed at housing, energy, transport, and beyond. But it also requires legislation, regulation, innovation, and most of all, ambition.We need to start designing products and services in a way that communicates the net luxury they bring, much more than any green benefit. Yes, this product might salve your conscience but more than that it will make you feel good/save money/look cool/be healthier [delete as appropriate].
*Given the way HS2 has been costed, there’s a very good chance this number will come in much lower and a future government will trumpet its excellent cost cutting/management.