Climate mitigation depends on connecting policies to personal well-being

Unbearable heat. Increasingly strong storms. Floods followed by droughts. The disruption of climate change to our health, well-being, security, and economy, not to mention the quality of the environment and the beauty of the landscape, is increasing as never before. Indeed, at the last climate summit, COP27 (Egypt), the expert community bid farewell to the naive illusion that the planet can keep below a 1.5 °C increase over the course of this century and admitted that we are heading for a 3 °C rise. And we all know what a 3 °C rise implies for the body.

If when we have a fever, we stop and reassess what we need to do, why don’t we proceed in the same way when our environmental and climate system gives us so many signals? For years, it was posited that it was first a question of cognitive difficulty in understanding a subject too complex or distant. How do we explain to society that their cars’ emissions or the production of the meat they consume have climate consequences?

The approach has been to bring small individual actions to the center of the debate through the mantra that every individual mitigating action counts. Taking quick baths would save energy; so would reusing towels, as well as polluting less water, and separating solid and organic waste would put us closer to an ideal of environmental citizenship. All these measures are legitimate behaviors, but they are too isolated, microscopic and subject to personal slips to reach the necessary scale of transformations of habits that contribute to global warming.

Hence the urgency of moving towards a net-zero emission agenda by 2050 based on public policies that impact society as a whole and on a large scale. In fact, society’s growing concern about the climate crisis anticipates its likely support for initiatives that should be implemented by governments that affect some of our most harmful behaviors. For example, nine out of ten Brazilians agree that global warming is a serious problem for humanity; eight acknowledge that they already suffer the effects of climate change and four are willing to pay more for products that have a lower carbon footprint.

This diagnosis has led governments, NGOs, and universities to explore how to mobilize the population to move from intentions to actions and to adopt systemic practices that challenge ingrained habits, standard procedures and default rules of the game that undermine plans to zero our emissions. This raises a number of practical questions about how we transport ourselves, feed ourselves and source household products.

Should we normalize face-to-face meetings that require international flights, or should we naturalize remote forms that avoid gas emissions? Should the state seek a diet with a smaller environmental footprint in public schools, hospitals and ministries or should this adjustment in personal nutrition be left to individual choices?

These are concrete policies that go beyond individual decisions and therefore have the potential to generate large-scale change. Raising taxes on red meat and dairy products, increasing airfares for frequent flyers, replacing the commodity tax with one that looks at product emissions would have a greater effect than fragmented individual actions such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs or going to the supermarket by bicycle instead of by car.

How can citizens be persuaded to support and thus legitimize these proposals? Historically, raising awareness and mobilizing support for environmental causes appealed to fear, guilt or extreme personal sacrifice: none of these have worked.

In the quest to understand what triggers can be activated when proposing collective policies, experiments on redefining behaviors in favor of zero emissions, such as the one developed by the consulting firm Market Analysis, together with the network of sustainability experts SCORAI Brazil, provide good clues. According to this, when the welfare benefits of these policies are shown (better health by eating less red meat, and more nutritional safety in public areas), adherence to these proposals increases. This happens in a much higher proportion than when the same policies are defended for their possible economic advantages (more savings from greater frugality or lower expenses for using concentrated products) or for their environmental dividends (cleaner air or a climate less subject to extremes).

For instance, support for pro-vegetarian and anti-animal protein public procurement rises from 50% to almost 64% when arguments related to welfare, health and family safety are used, compared to an increase of up to 55% when exclusively environmental ideas are used. In the case of the internalization of climate-related costs in prices, the economic argument is innocuous in driving support, but when connecting this proposal to lifestyle benefits, attachment increases from 56% to over 69%.

A net-zero emissions future requires going beyond individuals acting virtuously in isolation. Public opinion surveys serve to identify the most effective rationale for convincing people to change entire mobility, food and household supply practices to the extent necessary to combat climate change. In turn, such polls reveal that public support requires more than a promise of financial gain or an assumption that people will respond to environmental principles.

The battle against global warming and the relevant measures to win depends on the connection between these proposals and the personal, family and collective welfare benefits.

*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues

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