It felt like an illegitimate and underhanded attack. After I gave a seminar on perceptions of energy use, a member of the audience stood up and asked me: You flew to this meeting, so why should I listen to anything you have to say? To me, it was irrelevant to the seminar. The research was the research, and my own behavior was separate from my findings.
Accusing a messenger of hypocrisy is a common debate tactic and, whether fair or not, often distracts from important conversations. This isn’t unique to the field of climate change. In other contexts, skeptics ask: Would you trust an overweight doctor to give you dieting advice? A smoker who told you to stop smoking? I would, if their argument held, because I do not know the situational constraints that led to their appearance or behavior.
Would you trust a climate-change scientist who advocates for energy conservation and climate-change policies if they had a large carbon footprint? The answer, my collaborators and I have found, is likely to be no, which matters for how willing people are to conserve energy at home.
In a paper published in Climatic Change, we explored when and why carbon footprints matter for credibility and message uptake. In an online experiment, participants saw a common narrative about attending a talk by a leading climate researcher. In the narrative, the researcher explains how an individual’s actions can collectively have a large impact on the environment. This narrative was followed by one of 18 experimental manipulations.
Would you trust a climate-change scientist who advocates for energy conservation and climate-change policies if they had a large carbon footprint?
There are two manipulations I would like to describe to you. One deals with high home energy use: “You later find out that the researcher consumes much more energy than the average person at home. He has a large home with a high lighting, heating, and cooling bill, has not switched to a slightly more expensive but green energy provider, and has not invested in energy-efficient appliances that would decrease his energy use at home.”
The second deals with low home energy use: “You later find out that the researcher consumes much less energy than the average person at home. He has a modest home with a low lighting, heating, and cooling bill, has switched to a slightly more expensive but green energy provider, and has invested in energy-efficient appliances that decrease his energy use at home.”
We found huge differences in how participants rated the credibility of each of these researchers: The researcher who consumes less energy at home was rated as more credible than the researcher who consumes more energy. These differences in credibility strongly affect a participant’s reported intentions to conserve energy in their own lives (i.e., their intentions to fly less, conserve energy at home, and take public transportation).
Surprisingly, participants were more sensitive to how researchers used energy at home than flying, even though flying is a much bigger contributor to a researcher’s carbon footprint. Given our research, we advised in our paper that a climate communicator could defend against ad hominem attacks by making sure they are conserving energy in their own lives.
Sadly, this recommendation is incomplete. How much someone does to decrease their carbon footprint is subject to competing goals and situational constraints. For example, currently, I am a vegetarian and do not have children, I live close to work, and of late have declined some air travel for talks and meetings to decrease my carbon footprint. Choosing not to fly is probably detrimental for my career. That said, I am more of a city person and have lived for the past six years in a smaller college town. Not traveling to visit friends and family would appreciably decrease my well-being and happiness even though I know not flying would decrease my carbon footprint.
What’s more, that recommendation lands on a slippery slope, because there is always more you can do to conserve energy in your life. The sick joke among people in my field is that “the best thing you can do for the environment is to kill yourself,” which painfully illustrates the challenge in this domain of practicing what one preaches.
The sick joke among people in my field is that “the best thing you can do for the environment is to kill yourself,” which painfully illustrates the challenge in this domain of practicing what one preaches.
If the advice to “conserve energy” is of limited use, what is a better way to think about effective climate communication and action? This question pertains not just to climate scientists and communicators. We all face this challenge. Given that global atmospheric carbon concentration has been steadily increasing, and that top-down solutions are not happening fast enough, we are all responsible for taking some action. Going to live in a cave or burying your head in the sand are not solutions. Instead, we need to think about shifting practice, people, politics, and policies. Individual behavior is important, and we also need market and policy solutions. I am not proposing that we give people a free pass to conspicuous consumption but rather pointing out that we all live in glass houses if we look hard enough.
So here is my call to action, and the answer I wished I had given the questioner at my presentation: Do what you can and talk about what you are doing. That could preemptively defend against ad hominem attacks and by extension inspire others to change and support needed climate policies. We need political will and public support to decarbonize our energy system. That is what really matters.