Psychologists refer to it as the value-action gap. People behave badly, despite knowing the consequences, believing that the things they are doing are harmful and wanting to be better people.
Smokers keep on smoking. Drinkers keep on drinking. And consumers keep on consuming, which results in the emitting of emissions.
But to deal with the challenges of climate change we are going to need to fundamentally change consumption patterns around the world. This means we have to significantly bring down personal carbon emissions in developed nations.
Succeeding in doing this will probably involve some combination of restrictions on a number of things that people enjoy doing today, such as driving cars, flying around the world, buying lots of shiny new things, or eating meat twice a day. This is difficult to achieve because people like these things and don’t want to stop doing them.
At the same time, if things go as expected, in the course of this century we will be bringing billions of people around the world out of poverty in developing countries. It is likely that these people will want to live increasingly middle-class lifestyles (using the more global definition of middle-class, which refers to earning more than $10 and less than $100 a day – so it’s not all about skiing holidays and fancy restaurants).
But adopting the middle-class lifestyles enjoyed in richer countries today means more a huge growth in carbon emissions. So we need to figure out how to improve billions of lives without pumping out billions of additional tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The big question is whether it is possible to convince people to go without the things they want in order to deal with climate change? Personally, I’m not just a hypocrite, I’m also a pessimist when it comes to human nature. It doesn’t seem likely that people will just volunteer to stop doing things they want to do to solve an issue, especially if others continue to enjoy those things. This is a powerful and dangerous combination of the tragedy of the commons and sheer bloody-mindedness.
For each additional hardship that people have to endure, their willingness to accept further deprivations will decrease. This is another psychological phenomenon, known as ego depletion. In essence, consistently having to exert self-control causes you to lose willpower, making it increasingly difficult to hold back from indulging your desires.
There are certainly a small number of thoughtful, heroic types with strong beliefs and ironclad moral fortitude, who are able to keep their ego up. These rare individuals are able to ascend to asceticism, don the metaphorical hair shirt and live a simple, sustainable existence. Most of us are far more mired in the material world. Despite knowing better we are suckers for adverts, we read celebrity gossip instead of serious news, or we simply can’t resist that chocolate bar that looks so tasty at the supermarket checkout.
Study after study tells us that consumers care more about price, quality and value than sustainability. Sometimes consumers tell people that they care about the sustainability of the products and services they buy, but their real world behaviour shows that issues like the environment don’t really have a big influence on purchasing decisions.
But all is not lost. In the right circumstances it is very possible for consumers to make more sustainable choices. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, when conditions change then so can behaviour. We need to work hard to make more sustainable options more desirable (or to stigmatise environmentally-unfriendly behaviour). If low carbon becomes cheaper, better quality or of greater value then it becomes easy.
A lot of people are currently trying to solve the problem of overcoming our shared psychological weaknesses and creating a system where it is easier to be sustainable. In particular, the UN is currently putting in place a huge ten year framework of programmes across a range of sectors on sustainable consumption and production patterns, known as 10YFP. Effective solutions will almost certainly require joined-up effort from across society: government regulation, grassroots campaigns, media attention, academic understanding and business innovation.
As individuals we may not be able to do enough to solve climate change, even if we want it to be solved. But to end on an optimistic note, we may be inconsistent ourselves, but collectively our commitments can create the conditions for change.
As the world meets in Paris to discuss how we can limit carbon emissions, consumers can have a really strong influence by simply demanding stronger action. We can demand action even if we don’t take it ourselves.
This is the power of being a hypocrite. It gives governments and businesses the mandate to move forward with what we know will be necessary, increasing our ambitions, unleashing our ingenuity and changing the rules of the game.
I’m not the only hypocrite out there. There is a serious gap between our values and our actions. But I want to live in world where that gap can be made a lot narrower. Until then I’ll be doing my best to keep my ego up, try to make more sustainable decisions whenever I can and demand a strong global deal on climate change. I hope my fellow hypocrites will join me.
This article is published as part of the Carbon Trust's COP21 Blog Series: The Road to Paris is Paved with Good Intentions.