Want to help the environment? First fix your work-life balance


Andreas Chai, Griffith University

When it comes to climate change, do you practice what you preach? While many of us express strong concern about the issue, there tends to be a yawning gap between this concern and many people’s willingness to actually act on it by doing things like using less power or petrol.

Why should we care about this “value-action gap”? Well for one thing, these practices can make a big difference: up to an estimated 20% of household emissions, according to one US study. Things like using housing insulation and public transport, if done on a wide enough scale, can seriously help the world avoid major climate change.

Many might attribute this gap to “cheap talk” – people say they care, but they don’t really. But survey after survey has shown that people are truly aware of the risks of climate change, and that it is a growing source of emotional distress. In Australia, national surveys in 2010 and 2012 showed that public acceptance and concern about climate change has remained very high, and that it is viewed as a genuine threat by many people across different ages, regions and income levels.

A much more disturbing idea is that people’s choices are shaped by their work and social settings, and that people’s lifestyles therefore hold them back from taking action. This is the crux of what the downshifting movement has been telling us about for decades: that your choices are not just yours alone, but are heavily shaped by the environment in which you live, the hours you work and play, and the social norms you embrace.

What time to adapt?

My colleagues and I re-analysed this extensive survey database, and found evidence to support this idea. Working conditions do indeed seem to influence the extent to which people act on their environmental concerns.

After controlling for a range of demographic variables and household income, we found that people who work longer hours tend to have a significantly larger gap between the extent to which they are concerned about the environment, and their actual engagement in environmentally sustainable practices.

It is tempting to attribute this to the effect of income – people who work longer are probably richer as well. But then again, wouldn’t more money make people better able to act on their concerns?

Here’s the catch: while the rich who declare themselves to be concerned about climate change do tend to buy environmentally friendly products, our results show they are also much less much likely to engage in time-consuming practices concerning how their goods are used, such as conserving electricity and fuel.

So what?

Our results suggest that policies to improve work-life balance and working conditions may deliver important environmental dividends. When it comes to adapting to climate change, governments and employers would do well to consider how long working hours can get in the way of environmentally sound behaviour.

Currently, millions of dollars are spent every year on public information and engagement campaigns to encourage the voluntary adoption of environmentally sustainable practices. Yet evidence suggests that such campaigns are relatively ineffective, partly because behaviour patterns are “locked” into existing lifestyles.

What’s more, as the economist Clive Spash has pointed out, standard “tax-and-subsidise” measures, such as both the carbon tax and the government’s Direct Action plan, are recognized to be both slow and costly to implement, and run the risk of reducing people’s motivation to take their own voluntary action.

In other words, there is a danger that the more people formally pay for carbon emissions, the less likely they are to do their bit to reduce their own carbon footprint.

Rather than narrowly focusing on taxing and subsidizing our way towards a more sustainable economy, we need to find way in which we can encourage people to act voluntarily on their environmental concerns. Rather than merely raising public awareness about climate change, the real challenge is to ensure that people have the broad capacity to respond to these messages.

Measures to improve work-life balance may help people to adapt their lifestyles so they can act on their environmental concerns.

The daily grind

For those of us caught in the daily balancing act between work and everything else, the advice is simple. Do take that opportunity to go home an hour early – not only are you safeguarding your mental health, you are also encouraging others to lead lifestyles that are more reflective of their values, environmental or otherwise.

Of course, if you go home and decide to burn coal for an extra hour, that’s not true.

But chances are that you, like most people, are concerned about climate change but just haven’t had the time to really think about what exactly you can do about it.

It’s time to change that – and that’s something that governments and employers, by implementing measures which promote a better work-life balance, can help out with too.

The Conversation

Andreas Chai is Senior Lecturer at Griffith University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Explainer: what is the List of World Heritage in Danger?


Peter Valentine, James Cook University

The List of World Heritage in Danger has recently come to the attention of Australians, as the World Heritage Committee considers whether the Great Barrier Reef belongs there. What is the list, and what does getting onto it mean?

The World Heritage Convention and the ‘in danger’ list

The World Heritage Convention is an international convention adopted by UNESCO aimed at conserving the world’s most outstanding heritage sites. The convention covers 190 countries that voluntarily participate in it. Identifying potential world heritage places is the responsibility of each participating country.

The World Heritage Committee – a 21-member body established by the convention but with membership elected by the member states – decides which sites make the list (there are currently 1,007). Countries have to protect, conserve, communicate the value of, rehabilitate and transmit the sites to future generations.

The government of Honduras requested the World Heritage Committee place its Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve on the List in Danger because of its reduced capacity to manage the site. Lawlessness in the area led to illegal logging, fishing and land occupation, poaching and the presence of drug traffickers.
Hjvannes/Wikimedia Commons

The World Heritage Committee also publishes a second list: the “List of World Heritage in Danger”.

Normally, for a site to enter this list, its country asks for help to address serious threats. But in cases of urgent need, the committee can inscribe a site immediately and without the agreement of its country. Currently, 46 World Heritage Sites, 20 of which are natural, are on the List in Danger.

The 46 sites currently on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
UNESCO/Google Maps

How are sites added to the list?

The World Heritage Committee gets information about the state of conservation of sites from countries and from advisory bodies such as the IUCN (natural heritage) and ICOMOS (cultural heritage). Where threats have been identified or changes proposed that may adversely effect a World Heritage property, the committee may seek a detailed site examination. This happened on the Great Barrier Reef in 2012.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, the largest barrier reef in the Northern Hemisphere, was put on the World Heritage in Danger List for excessive development. The Great Barrier Reef is under scrutiny for similar concerns.
Asteiner/Wikimedia Commons

Two of the criteria used for placing a property on the list are ascertained and potential danger. Ascertained danger measures imminent threats, such as industrial development, to the site. Potential danger applies to development proposals that could undermine the essential character of the site.

Why list a site as ‘in danger’?

There are some advantages to a country of having a site listed as “in danger”. The World Heritage Committee can allocate funds to respond to the threats, typically under a plan drawn up with the country concerned. And it highlights to the world the threats that exist and encourages donor agencies to help.

For example, all five World Heritage Sites in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been on the endangered list since 1994, which has generated a large amount of international aid to support their rehabilitation. More than US$50 million has flowed not just from UNESCO but also from non-government organisations and from Belgium and Japan. This is an excellent example of the convention at work.

Countries may seek to avoid listing (and any perceived shame attached to this) and address the concerns internally. This occurred when Ecuador’s Galapagos World Heritage Area was inscribed.

Ecuador initially opposed the listing and asked for time to resolve the concerns internally. This required a constitutional change to empower the federal government to take appropriate action. Much to Ecuador’s credit, this was accomplished.

Few other countries have taken such dramatic action to protect World Heritage. On two occasions when countries have failed to respond appropriately, the committee has taken the radical step to remove sites from both Heritage lists altogether. The first to be removed was Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary – a victim of the nation’s lust for oil.

Every such removal would be seen as a failure of the convention. The presumption is that a site is rehabilitated and then upgraded to its original standing on the World Heritage list.

While there has been some debate about its efficacy and there are different interpretations about the significance and meaning of listing a site as “in danger”, the process is a very clear first step in the potential removal of a site from the World Heritage List.

The Conversation

Peter Valentine is Associate Professor Environmental Science at James Cook University.

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