By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in Alternatives Journal, 2011
"We must change our behaviour to avert climate change.” Almost every day I hear this – from environmentalists, politicians, business leaders, educators, journalists, almost anyone who cares. The assumption is pervasive: without behavioural change, we cannot avoid climate change. Ironically, however, I hear this everywhere except in my job – which involves collaborating internationally with researchers who design and test models that simulate the impacts of policies meant to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. When we test against past environmental-policy successes, we find that behavioural change did not reduce the emissions that cause acid rain, urban air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, lead contamination and so on. Technologies changed, not behaviour.
My dictionary defines behaviour as “how one acts or conducts oneself.” For over two decades, governments have begged us to change behaviour in order to reduce GHG emissions: drive less, turn off lights and electronic devices when leaving a room, lower home temperatures when absent or sleeping, dry clothes outside, take shorter showers, fly less and so on. These are behavioural changes because they involve acting differently on a regular basis, usually requiring our conscious attention to do so.
Behavioural change is not, therefore, a one-time decision to purchase a different device: a high-efficiency fridge, a hybrid-electric vehicle, a compact fluorescent light bulb. Such a decision requires no behavioural change, no conscious effort to conduct oneself differently. Similarly, behavioural change is not a one-time decision by energy companies (usually forced by policy) to generate electricity with renewables, increase biofuel content of gasoline and jet fuel, or manufacture and market electric vehicles.
You might not think that this distinction between behavioural change and technological change is critical. Think again. Rigorous research consistently shows that getting people to acquire a different technology is dramatically easier than getting them to sustain the conscious effort needed to act differently on a regular basis. We usually require compulsory policies such as regulations and taxes to induce technological change because the effect is more significant and enduring.
Ask a friend how they changed their behaviour to help reduce acid-gas emissions, lead emissions, urban smog and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, and you’ll get a confused look. They didn’t change their behaviour. Instead, governments implemented compulsory policies that either banned environmentally unfriendly technologies and fuels or made them increasingly more expensive.
We must do the same with GHG emissions, but this will happen only after we stop deluding ourselves about the necessity and ease of behavioural change. Figuring out why this delusion has continued for more than two decades is a challenge. My guess is that people don’t readily give up on their favourite myths, regardless of the evidence. Many environmentalists believe that once they get everyone to see the world as they do, then people will change their behaviour as they have. Politicians like to agree with environmentalists on this because it lets them off the hook. They get to fund ads asking people to change their behaviour (Remember the One-Tonne Challenge?), which is a lot easier than implementing regulations and putting a price on GHG emissions. (Remember Stéphane Dion?) Even climate skeptics and those who make money producing our current technologies and fuels enjoy the behavioural-change myth because, as long as it prevails, humanity will do very little to reduce emissions.
Trying to change one’s own behaviour and that of others in order to use less energy or a less-polluting form of energy is certainly a good thing. But it is harmful if it diverts our attention and efforts from the more fundamental change that is very difficult yet absolutely essential: changing our laws and our fiscal system.