‘Do-gooders’, conservatives and reluctant recyclers: how personal morals can be harnessed for climate action


Jacqueline Lau, James Cook University; Andrew Song, University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Brock UniversityThere’s no shortage of evidence pointing to the need to act urgently on climate change. Most recently, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed Earth has warmed 1.09℃ since pre-industrial times and many changes, such as sea-level rise and glacier melt, cannot be stopped.

Clearly, emissions reduction efforts to date have fallen abysmally short. But why, when the argument in favour of climate action is so compelling?

Decisions about climate change require judging what’s important, and how the world should be now and in future. Therefore, climate change decisions are inherently moral. The rule applies whether the decision is being made by an individual deciding what food to eat, or national governments setting goals at international climate negotiations.

Our research reviewed the most recent literature across the social and behavioural sciences to better understand the moral dimensions of climate decisions. We found some moral values, such as fairness, motivate action. Others, such as economic liberty, stoke inaction.

graph with arrow leading upwards
Those who prioritise economic liberty may be less willing to take climate action.
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Morals as climate motivators

Our research uncovered a large body of research confirming people’s moral values are connected to their willingness to act on climate change.

Moral values are the yardstick through which we understand things to be right or wrong, good or bad. We develop personal moral values through our families in childhood and our social and cultural context.

But which moral values best motivate personal actions? Our research documents a study in the United States, which found the values of compassion and fairness were a strong predictor of someone’s willingness to act on climate change.

According to moral foundations theory, the value of compassion relates to humans’ evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel and dislike the pain of others.

Fairness relates to the evolutionary process of “reciprocal altruism”. This describes a situation whereby an organism acts in a way that temporarily disadvantages itself while benefiting another, based on an expectation that the altruism will be reciprocated at a later time.




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Conversely, a study in Australia found people who put a lower value on fairness, compared to either the maintenance of social order or the right to economic freedom, were more likely to be sceptical about climate change.

People may also use moral “disengagement” to justify, and assuage guilt over, their own climate inaction. In other words, they convince themselves that ethical standards do not apply in a particular context.

For example, a longitudinal study of 1,355 Australians showed over time, people who became more morally disengaged became more sceptical about climate change, were less likely to feel responsible and were less likely to act.

Our research found the moral values driving efforts to reduce emissions (mitigation) were different to those driving climate change adaptation.

Research in the United Kingdom showed people emphasised the values of responsibility and respect for authorities, country and nature, when talking about mitigation. When evaluating adaptation options, they emphasised moral values such as protection from harm and fair distribution of economic costs.

people on crowd hold signs
Moral reasoning helps shape climate beliefs, including climate scepticism.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Framing climate decisions

How government and private climate decisions are framed and communicated affects who they resonate with, and whether they’re seen as legitimate.

Research suggests climate change could be made morally relevant to more people if official climate decisions appealed to moral values associated with right-wing political leanings.

A US study found liberals interpreted climate change in moral terms related to harm and care, while conservatives did not. But when researchers reframed pro-environmental messages in terms of moral values that resonated with conservatives, such as defending the purity of nature, differences in the environmental attitudes of both groups narrowed.

Indeed, research shows moral reframing can change pro-environmental behaviours of different political groups, including recycling habits.

In the US, people were found to recycle more after the practice was reframed in moral terms that resonated with their political ideology. For conservatives, the messages appealed to their sense of civic duty and respect for authority. For liberals, the messages emphasised recycling as an act of fairness, care and reducing harm to others.




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person opens lid of recycling bin
Reframing of messages can help encourage habits such as recycling.
James Ross/AAP

When moralising backfires

Clearly, morals are central to decision-making about the environment. In some cases, this can extend to people adopting – or being seen to adopt – a social identity with moral associations such as “zero-wasters”, “voluntary simplifiers” and cyclists.

People may take on these identities overtly, such as by posting about their actions on social media. In other cases, a practice someone adopts, such as cycling to work, can be construed by others as a moral action.

Being seen to hold a social identity based on a set of morals may actually have unintended effects. Research has found so-called “do-gooders” can be perceived by others as irritating rather than inspiring. They may also trigger feelings of inadequacy in others who, as a self-defense mechanism, might then dismiss the sustainable choices of the “do-gooder”.

For example, sociologists have theorised that some non-vegans avoid eating a more plant-based diet because they don’t want to be associated with the social identity of veganism.

It makes sense, then, that gentle encouragement such as “meat-free Mondays” is likely more effective at reducing meat consumption than encouraging people to “go vegan” and eliminate meat altogether.

Looking ahead

Personal climate decisions come with a host of moral values and quandaries. Understanding and navigating this moral dimension will be critical in the years ahead.

When making climate-related decisions, governments should consider the moral values of citizens. This can be achieved through procedures like deliberative democracy and citizen’s forums, in which everyday people are given the chance to discuss and debate the issues, and communicate to government what matters most to them.




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The Conversation


Jacqueline Lau, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Andrew Song, Lecturer / ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow (DECRA), University of Technology Sydney, and Jessica Blythe, Assistant Professor, Environmental Sustainability Research Centre, Brock University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

People power: everyday Australians are building their own renewables projects, and you can too



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Dominique McCollum Coy, Monash University; Roger Dargaville, Monash University, and Shirin Malekpour, Monash University

In the town of Goulburn in southern New South Wales, an energy revolution is brewing. The community has come together to build its own 4,000-panel solar farm – everyday citizens are invited to buy shares in the venture and reap the rewards.

Goulburn is not alone: community-owned energy is an idea whose time has come. About 100 community energy groups operate across Australia – their projects at various levels of development – up from 25 groups in 2015.

The concept is gaining political attention, too. Independent MP for the federal Victorian seat of Indi, Helen Haines, in August moved a motion in parliament, calling on the Morrison government to support community energy, including establishing a new government agency. The bill is backed by fellow independent Zali Steggall.

At its core, community energy rests on the belief that everyday people should have power over how their energy is generated – including its environmental and social impacts. Big corporations should not control our energy systems, nor should they reap all the profits. So let’s take a look at how community energy works.

A solar farm
Projects such as the ACT’s Mount Majura solar farm allow citizens to take control of their energy needs.
Steve Bittinger/Flickr

What is community energy?

Australia’s first community-owned renewable energy project, Hepburn Wind, started generating power in June 2011. Since then, many more communities across Australia have banded together to manage their own solar, wind, micro-grid and efficiency projects.

The Goulburn project will be built in the Hume electorate of federal energy minister Angus Taylor, about 3km from the town centre. Earlier this year it received a A$2.1 million state grant, under the Regional Community Energy Fund.

Investors can reportedly buy A$400 shares, each covering the cost of a solar panel and the infrastructure needed for grid connection.

Community energy groups take various forms.




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Hepburn Wind and the Goulburn Solar Farm, for example, involve a community investment model in which local groups develop a project, then seek investors from the community to fund it.

This might involve forming a cooperative, or selling shares in the venture. The community organisation may take responsibility for delivering the project – including design, installation, and management – or may outsource this to an external company.

A second model involves raising money through donations, either via crowd-sourcing platforms or traditional means. The money is usually spent on installing a sustainable energy system at a local premises. For example in north-east Victoria, a First Nations-owned renewable energy project will deliver solar power to the office of a state government agency.

The third type of project involves a group of households coming together to find a renewable energy solution, such as bulk-buying solar energy.

Hepburn Wind is Australia’s oldest community energy project.

What are the benefits?

Community-owned renewable energy projects are a great way for everyday people to get involved in the transition to a low-carbon future. The benefits include:

  • local job creation and economic development

  • returns on investment for community shareholders

  • increased energy security, helping communities to avoid blackouts

  • more affordable energy

  • the creation of funds to reinvest in other community projects. For example in Scotland, dividends from renewables developments have been invested in electric public transport and local skills development

  • community building, in which towns develop a stronger identity, participate in communal activities and make collective decisions about their future.

Empowering the community

The energy transformation is not just about moving from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s also about changing who is responsible for, and benefits from, our energy system.

Inevitably, those in power, such as existing energy generators and their political supporters, will resist such change.




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We’ve seen this play out in Australia, which has triggered more than a decade of climate policy inaction. More recently, the Morrison government has pushed ahead with a plan for a “gas-fired” economic recovery, despite the harm this will cause to our emissions reduction efforts. These developments are clearly at odds with community support for action on climate change.

Traditionally, communities are often shut out of decision making on energy projects, including renewables. Communities often become dependent on both local political representation to voice their views, and the capacity of energy network operators to work with them.

People attend a community meeting
In community energy projects, locals are involved from the ground up.
Flickr

Communities must be empowered to take part in planning, and have ownership of projects. Our research, soon to be published, shows such empowerment involves helping communities develop the capacity and power to meet their own energy goals. This means developing new skills, working together and becoming equal decision makers.

Governments are central to this by helping communities deliver projects. The Victorian government’s Community Power Hubs are a good example. At three “hubs” – in Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley – various types of energy projects were implemented. Each sought to build local knowledge of, and participation in, community energy, and ensured the benefits stayed in the region.

Looking ahead

Australia’s growing community energy movement shows us what’s possible, but it needs more government support, especially at the federal level. Helen Haines’ proposal is a very good start.

The energy transformation will require massive investment, and most projects will be built in regional communities.

Empowering community energy is the ideal way to provide some of that investment, build stronger rural economies and ensure the benefits of the energy transformation are shared by all.The Conversation

Dominique McCollum Coy, Doctoral Researcher, Behaviour Change Graduate Research Industry Partnership (GRIP), Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Roger Dargaville, Senior lecturer & Deputy Director Monash Energy Institute, Monash University, and Shirin Malekpour, Senior Lecturer and Research Lead, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Copenhagen Summit Fails to Deliver


In news that has delighted the ears of climate change sceptics the world over, the Copenhagen summit on climate change has failed to deliver anything of real value that will actually make a difference. It is truly disappointing that even in the face of a massive environmental disaster that will affect the entire planet, global leaders have failed to lead and work together in finding solutions to the major issues we face over the coming decades and century.

Newspapers in Australia have reported the failure of the summit and are reporting on the leader of the opposition gloating over the failure of the summit. His solution is to ignore the real issue and hope that the Australian people prove to be as oblivious to climate change as the coalition he leads.

Typically, the usual anti-Kevin Rudd biased journalists and climate change sceptics of the newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) I read this morning, were also quick to pour further scorn on the Prime Minister and the problem of climate change itself (which they deny). One particular vocal climate change sceptic in the Sunday Telegraph has very little credibility with me and I find his obsessive anti-Rudd tirades more than a little tiring. This self-opinionated buffoon is little more than an embarrassment for both the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Telegraph for which he also writes. His columns are becoming more of a personal vendetta against Kevin Rudd than anything resembling real journalism.

I’ll be finding a better way to become acquainted with the daily news than continuing to read the biased diatribes that continue to be put forward by these papers in future. I’ll also be hoping that our leaders can overcome the various preoccupations each have with self-interest (whether it be personal or national) in order to reach a real workable agreement on dealing with the growing threat of climate change