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Climate Protests have Sparked a Debate About the Role of Individual Consumers While Tackling Structural Problems

Jack McGovan explores the personal responsibility of the top 10% of global consumers and the impact they can make on halting the effects of climate change

Protestors from Insulate Britain blocking a road near Canary Wharf, east London on 25 October 2021. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Images/Alamy

Climate Protests have Sparked a Debate About Role of Individual Consumers & Tackling Structural Problems

Jack McGovan explores the personal responsibility of the top 10% of global consumers and the impact they can make on halting the effects of climate change

Protests demanding action on the climate emergency have been increasing in intensity in the run up to the COP26 conference.

While organisations such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) continue to deploy the tactics they are known for, newer groups like Insulate Britain have, somewhat controversially, forced themselves into the public sphere.

Although both groups exist to demand political action from politicians, the protests have triggered debates about the issue of individual carbon footprints – the carbon emissions associated with a person’s consumption habits. 

One woman’s choice to drive her son to school in an SUV and a heated exchange at a roadblock organised by Insulate Britain drew attention in recent weeks. Many highlighted how unnecessary such a large vehicle is for such a simple task – if SUV drivers were a country, they would be the seventh most polluting country in the world.

At the start of October, XR protestors blocked all major entrances to a private airport in Hampshire to demonstrate against the use of private jets, highlighting that the very wealthy were responsible for a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions. 


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The Power of the 10%

Even within the climate movement, discussions around individual behaviour can become quite spirited.

Some see behavioural changes as a distraction from the fact that we need large-scale political and infrastructural shifts. Whereas others see individual actions and systemic changes as two sides of the same coin.

Part of the reason people argue against behavioural change is the false narrative that the carbon footprint was conceived by oil giant BP. It was, in fact, devised by researchers in the 1990s, and is a useful tool for showing that wealthier people emit more. 

“Half of the global population contributes almost nothing [in terms of emissions], so it means the other half, and especially the 10%, need to make changes,” has said Dr Magnus Bengtsson, policy lead at the Hot or Cool Institute, and co-author of its recent report on a global Paris-compliant 1.5-degree lifestyle.

The 10% to which he refers includes anyone earning around £28,000 or more a year, with the median salary in the UK at £31,461. This group accounted for half of the emissions added to the atmosphere from 1990 to 2015. 

But lowering the carbon footprint of the global 10% isn’t just about staying within the biophysical limits of our planet, it is a matter of justice too. “The sooner we start making real changes and shrinking our carbon footprints, the more chances there will be that people in developing countries can use some fossil fuels to achieve a stage of development that can improve people’s quality of life, health and wellbeing,” Dr Bengtsson has observed.

Pointing out the climate sins of the extremely wealthy is common among climate advocates, who often fit into the global 10% themselves. Although the 1% do have significantly higher individual footprints, there are less of them, and so the total emissions of that group are actually much lower than the total emissions of the 10%.

Changing the consumption habits of the 1% is vital, but there is no escaping that the 10% must change their behaviour too. Research also shows that people are more likely to support climate advocates whose behaviour matches the policies they are calling for. 

“In general, we know that there can be a tendency for people to resist change – people sort of prefer the status quo,” said Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist specialising in behaviour related to climate change at the University of Bath. She believes that framing individual changes as being part of a large collective could be a way to encourage others to adopt them.

“We know that social norms are a really strong influence on people’s behaviour, so [framing behavioural changes as collective] makes people feel like ‘this is kind of a normal thing’ and that it’s what other people are doing now,” she told Byline Times.

Green Shoots of Change

On a positive note, there are examples of the shifting social norms in action.

University canteens in Berlin started serving a mostly vegan menu due to concerns surrounding the environmental impact of animal agriculture. It is no coincidence that 13.5% of Berlin’s student population identifies as vegan, compared to 1.6% in Germany as a whole. The existence of such a large vegan community, within what is considered one of the vegan capitals of the world, was the driving force behind the implementation of this largely meat-free-menu.

Sweden saw a drop in air travel passengers after singer Staffan Lingberg pledged to give up flying, thereby initiating the ‘flight shame’ – or flygskam –movement. As more Swedes were influenced by his pledge, the social norms around travelling without flying in the country shifted, leading to less air travel.

The adoption of solar panels has also been found to be subject to the ‘neighbour effect’ – people are more likely to install their own if their neighbours have already done so. 

These examples demonstrate that individual actions and systemic changes are inextricably linked. Policy changes are necessary to alter the structures that are driving us towards ecological collapse, but individual behaviours are also an important tool in making these policies popular. Those who do have the wealth, time, and power to change arguably therefore have more of a responsibility to do so.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh agrees and believes that it is “incumbent on those with power to use it to spread wider change” – while recognising that not everyone has such privilege. “There are so many barriers to individual behaviour change that are systemic and structural, so you do need the system change in order to enable people to change their behaviour,” she told Byline Times.

Whether individuals choose to make changes, or the system forces their hand, the global 10% must consume less if humanity is to have any hope of stopping the climate crisis.

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