Emissions cuts: a big ask?

An international opinion poll of 12,000 people in 12 countries found that in developing countries well over a half of those surveyed were prepared to make lifestyle changes to reduce climate change. Of course these are the people who will bear the brunt of climate effects, because of poverty and because many livelihoods are directly dependent on things like monsoon timings. They are also the people who make the world’s lowest per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

The survey found that in the rich world too, most participants wanted their governments to reduce carbon emissions by their fair share or more in order to let poor countries develop their economies. In the US, 72% said their country should reduce emissions by at least as much as others.

I find this fascinating. Some of these countries actually stand to gain locally from climate change as I discussed in an earlier post and yet people across the world – more than three-quarters of those asked – want to do more to cut carbon emissions; nearly half rated it as more important than the economic crisis. And yet this is a global situation that may not harm us directly or within our lifetimes. I am very cheered by humanity’s concern for – what could amount to – unborn strangers.

I called up George Fieldman, a London-based cognitive behavioural therapist who has spent some years researching altruism. He agreed that the behaviour had evolved as a way of benefiting your kin or in order to generate reciprocal benefits from another. But he also reminded me that charitable donations are often made to complete strangers.

So in the case of the climate, what’s the best way to encourage philanthropy? Fieldman recommends personalizing the process to reduce the abstract nature of climate effects. For example, going down the line of ‘adopt a child’ schemes, whereby people would donate to a particular project such as purchasing solar panels for a household or village. And pointing out the immediate benefits to the altruist can also help. For example, reducing carbon emissions by improving home insulation can slash your heating bills.

I spoke to Nobel Prize-winning legend Paul Crutzen the other day, about this very issue, and I asked him whether he was optimistic that people would rally to a cause that seemed far off and abstract. He told me: “I would like to be optimistic that we will reduce greenhouse gases in time, but I have no reason to be. But I think that people are good and they will not want to see others in the world suffer from their gases.”

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