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Wealthier people produce more carbon pollution — even the “green” ones

Good environmental intentions are swamped by the effects of money.

Responsible young shopper on a City street in the Moabit section of Berlin. She is shopping using a Eco friendly grocery bag. Square shot. Getty

One of the perennial debates in environmentalism, which has transferred over to the climate change discussion, is what role personal choices play in the grand scheme of things. Can consumer decisions play a substantial role in reducing emissions? Are people who are concerned about global warming obliged to reduce their own carbon footprint? Is emitting carbon a personal sin (so to speak) as well as a social one?

I have always been a skeptic about the role of personal choices in the climate fight, and a recent study has helped crystallize why. To put it in a nutshell: One’s environmental impact is primarily determined by structural features of one’s life circumstances, especially socioeconomic status.

Or to put it more bluntly: Rich people emit more carbon, even when they recycle and buy canvas tote bags full of organic veggies.

Good reasons to reduce your footprint

Before I say anything negative about lifestyle decisions (and get a bunch of angry emails), an important caveat: This story focuses only on climate change and carbon emissions.

There are many, many good reasons to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Fresh organic produce is healthy. Reducing/reusing/recycling waste shrinks landfills. Walking and riding bikes makes you happier and more engaged with your community. (Indeed, every second spent locomoting in some fashion other than a personal vehicle is a blessing to your physical and mental health.) Preferring experiences to things is more fulfilling.

Please, go forth and be green. You will be a better person for it.

bike share
Greener, happier.

All I’m talking about here is climate change — what it will take to slow and reverse the rise in global temperature.

Global warming is not only of a different scale than past environmental problems, it is of a different kind. It is not about any one pollutant or set of products. It is deeply and ineradicably systemic, woven into almost everything human beings do here on earth.

That makes it difficult to connect to, difficult to explain, and extremely difficult to solve. Very big things have to change over very long time scales, and human beings are not generally accustomed to thinking about such things.

That sense of overwhelming scale is part of what motivates the effort to connect climate change to individual behaviors. It gives us something we can wrap our heads around, something that is recognizably within our power.

But the scales of global emissions and personal choices are badly mismatched.

Ecological footprint is mostly determined by wealth

The study was published in the June 2017 edition of the journal Environment and Behavior with a title that gives you some idea of what to expect: “Good Intents, but Low Impacts.”

Spoiler: “Our results show that individuals with high pro-environmental self-identity intend to behave in an ecologically responsible way, but they typically emphasize actions that have relatively small ecological benefits.”

The paper, by researchers Stephanie Moser and Silke Kleinhückelkotten (Swiss and German respectively), begins with a review of some past research, which has taken two basic forms.

One line of research, “intent-oriented,” has converged on a consensus that what drives environmental behaviors is not any particular set of beliefs about the world, but identity. People who self-identify as “green” do green things. (I suppose this should be no surprise.) That self-identification has been shown to be a better predictor of pro-environment/energy-saving behaviors than other factors like socioeconomic status.

“Impact-oriented” research, however, tells a different story. Study after study finds that the primary determinant of a person’s actual ecological footprint is income. After that is geography (rural versus urban), various socioeconomic indicators (age, education level, etc.), and household size. Self-identification as “green” is toward the bottom of the list, with mostly marginal effects.

Familie trennt Müll, Recycling, Lifestyle, Deutschland
Not so fast, you two.

Green intentions are swamped by wealth

Moser and Kleinhückelkotten set out to test these results by examining detailed data gathered by a survey of about 1,000 representative Germans, done in 2016 for the German Environment Agency. (More on that survey here. There is obviously some question how well the results translate to other countries, but in this domain Germany seems at least like a decent analogue for the US — wealthy and greenish.)

They found a stark confirmation of previous research. First, “environmental self-identity was the strongest and only significant predictor of pro-environmental behavior.”

And second, “environmental self-identity did not predict overall energy use or carbon footprint.” In fact, energy use and carbon footprints were slightly higher among self-identified greenies. D’oh!

It’s not that the pro-environmental behaviors chosen by wealthy, eco-conscious people don’t reduce energy use and carbon footprints. They do. Just ... not very much. And what effect they have is swamped by the much larger effects of wealth, age, and status.

The variables that most predict carbon footprint are “per capita living space, energy used for household appliances, meat consumption, car use, and vacation travel.” And wealthy people — even those who self-identify as green — consume more and do more of all those things.

Basically, research shows that the cynical view is roughly correct: Environmental identity will lead to some relatively low-impact (high-signaling) pro-environmental behaviors, but it rarely drives serious reductions in the biggest sources of lifestyle emissions. Environmental self-identification rises with income, but so do emissions.

(A 2012 study and a 2013 study, both based on a survey in Hungary, found roughly the same thing.)

It is hard to stray far from one’s tribe

None of this should come as a surprise. People’s lives are heavily path-dependent — we live among people of roughly our socioeconomic status and do roughly what they do, eat what they eat, get around the way they get around.

Consider what the average upper-middle-class American would actually have to do to make a substantial dent in her carbon footprint. Above all, she would have to drastically cut back on travel — virtually never fly and heavily favor walking and biking. She would have to give up meat and live in a small apartment in a dense, transit-served urban area. (On the issue of what it would truly mean to consume only the “fair” per-capita amount of energy, watch this hour-long talk by Saul Griffith. It will change your life.)

Very few people, including those who think of themselves as environmentally conscious, are willing to make lifestyle changes that drastic. Beyond the practicalities, there is a social cost to diverging so sharply from your family and peer groups. It’s not easy.

With wealth comes opportunities for consumption. That’s why the global wealthy are responsible for such a grossly disproportionate percentage of “lifestyle consumption emissions,” as this graph from a 2015 Oxfam study illustrates:

extreme carbon inequality Oxfam

And here’s the thing: These are the emissions connected to your personal choices. But just by living in America (or any wealthy, developed country) and enjoying its shared resources and infrastructure, you are responsible for a certain baseline level of its shared emissions as well.

Even if every American could get their lifestyle emissions down somewhere close to that baseline, it still wouldn’t be nearly enough to solve climate change. To reduce Americans’ per-capita baseline to sustainable levels will require decarbonizing power, transportation, and industry, goals over which most individuals have limited control.

And even fairly radical lifestyle changes are meaningless at the level of global emissions unless they are multiplied by many millions. To imagine lifestyle choices making a substantial dent in global warming is to imagine a goodly portion of the world’s rich people voluntarily living a lifestyle that is relatively ascetic even by US middle-class standards.

I just find that very difficult to imagine.

Which is mostly likely to change, human nature or human technology?

Author and environmentalist George Monbiot (whose column pointed me to this research in the first place) is pessimistic about our current trajectory, seeing our rampant consumerism on a crash course with ecological reality. He has no faith that green technology can cut the link between our consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (so-called “decoupling”). He advocates a new political direction he characterizes as “private sufficiency and public luxury.”

For my own part, I’m feeling quite gloomy about human nature these days and have less faith than ever in our collective foresight. I don’t see the wealthy — and most people reading this likely count among the global wealthy — agreeing to forego the pleasures of a wealthy lifestyle on behalf of future generations, at least not at any real scale, any time soon.

That leaves decoupling, aiming for that exalted future state of a “circular economy,” in which all byproducts become feedstocks for something else and there is no waste. And the only way to move in that direction is through policy and technology innovation.

Such techno-dreams may be forlorn, human ingenuity may not move us fast enough, but I have zero faith that the consumer choices of well-meaning greens will move us any faster.

So, again: Go forth and be green. You will be happier and healthier. But do not mistake it for a solution to climate change. Only collective action and collective ingenuity can save us.

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