The Environment Connect

Words: Andreas CHAI

When it comes to climate change, do you practice what you preach? While many of us express a strong concern about the issue, there tends to be a yawning gap between this concern and many peoples’ 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 per cent 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. National surveys, in Australia, 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 recognised 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 subsidising our way towards a more sustainable economy, we need to find ways 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.

ANDREAS CHAI is the Head of Department for Accounting, Finance and Economics at the Griffith Business School, Australia. He specialises in analysing household consumption behaviour and their adaptation to climate change. His work has appeared in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Cambridge Journal of Economics as well as the Journal of Evolutionary Economics. Chai has also organised several international workshops on development and inequality featuring international scholars. He was a member of the organising committee for the 2012 International Schumpeter Society Conference at the University of Queensland. He has also been a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute of Economics [Germany] and the Austrian Institute for Economic Research [WIFO]. He has been invited to speak at the Centre for the Study of African Economies [Oxford University], New York University [USA], Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna [Italy], University of Bocconi [Italy], and SKEMA Business School [France]. This article was first published in Conversation under a Creative Commons License.

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