The A-Z of excuses for not taking action on the climate

01 February, 2023

Noel Cass

Reading time: 11 minutes

How do people with high levels of energy consumption normalise and justify their lifestyles? Noel Cass ponders climate inaction.

A paper I have written with Milena Buchs and Karen Lucas, coming out of the ‘excess’ or High energy consumers project, has been published in Energy Research and Social SciencesOpens in a new tab. An open access versionOpens in a new tab is also available. In it, we explore for (we think!) the first time, exactly how people we know to have lifestyles which involve high levels of energy consumption use discourses and discursive strategies to normalise and justify what they do.

Although the paper goes into great detail about the two different research activities that went into this analysis, this blog focuses on providing an ’A to Z’ of ways that people use talk to justify inaction on climate change. This is of use for researchers looking at why ‘behaviour change’ has not manifested, and for policy-makers and campaigners who want to identify how (particularly high consuming) people wriggle out of taking action on climate in their everyday lives, and justify this verbally.

How did we go about identifying discourses of inaction?

In the paper we drew on four specific papers and a broader literature to identify discourses that individuals might use to justify their high-consuming lifestyles. Some of them overlap, as we sourced them from different places. We called these the ‘discourses of inaction’.

First, there are the 12 ‘discourses of delay’ identified by Lamb et al. (2020)Opens in a new tab – storylines found in the media and used by politicians and individuals, that provide apparently convincing reasons for not acting on climate change at all, right now. These fall into the four main categories of:

  1. Redirecting responsibility to others,
  2. Emphasising the downsides of climate action,
  3. Pushing non-transformative solutions, and
  4. Surrender.

These are summarised by Skeptical Science blogOpens in a new tab as “”Not me, not like this, not now and too late!” The discourses are summarised as:

  • Whataboutism:
    “Our carbon footprint is trivial compared to […]. Therefore it makes no sense for us to take action, at least until […] does so.” *China, USA, Canada etc. – choose a country where you do not live!
  • Individualism:
    “Individuals and consumers are ultimately responsible for taking actions to address climate change.”
  • The ‘free rider’ excuse:
    “Reducing emissions is going to weaken us. Others have no real intention of reducing theirs and will take advantage of that.”
  • Appeal to social justice:
    “Climate actions will generate large costs. Vulnerable members of society will be burdened; hard-working people cannot enjoy their holidays.”
  • Policy perfectionism:
    “We should seek only perfectly crafted solutions that are supported by all affected parties; otherwise we will waste limited opportunities for adoption”
  • Appeal to well-being:
    “Fossil fuels are required for development. Abandoning them will condemn the global poor to hardship and their right to modern livelihoods.”
  • Technological optimism:
    “We should focus our efforts on current and future technologies, which will unlock great possibilities for addressing climate change”
  • All talk, little action:
    “We are world leaders in climate change. We have approved an ambitious target and have declared a climate emergency.”
  • Fossil fuel substitutionalism:
    “Fossil fuels are part of the solution. Our fuels are becoming more efficient and are the bridge towards a low-carbon futures.”
  • No sticks, just carrots:
    “Society will respond to supportive and voluntary policies, restrictive measure will fail and should be abandoned.”
  • Doomism:
    “Any mitigation actions we take are too little, too late. Catastrophic climate change is already locked-in. We should adapt, or accept our fate in the hands of God or nature.”
  • Change is impossible:
    “Any measure to reduce emissions would run against current ways of life or human nature and is thus impossible to implement in a democratic society.”

A brilliant cartoon graphic by Léonard ChemineauOpens in a new tab illustrates these discourses, and the sorts of people who use them.

Second, there are the seven Myths of Sustainability identified (and debunked) in a conference paper by Power and Mont (2010)Opens in a new tab which again are apparently convincing excuses for doing very little to respond to the climate crisis. These ‘myths’ are:

  • More information leads to sustainable behaviour
  • Small environmental actions will have a “spill-over effect” to bigger changes
  • If everyone does a little we will achieve a lot
  • Green consumption is the solution
  • Consumers should lead the shift to sustainability
  • Sustainability means “living in caves”
  • Appealing to people’s self-interest is the path to sustainable behaviour.

We then looked at two papers that summarised the ‘behaviour change’ literature on pro-environmental action. Each comes up with barriersOpens in a new tab and disablersOpens in a new tab that might block apparent pro-environmental knowledge, beliefs, values and attitudes from translating into actual action or behaviour change – things that explain the frequently identified ‘value-action’ and ‘attitude-behaviour’ gaps. These models are incredibly complex, so in order to identify when our interviewees were drawing on these barriers or disablers (whether or not they were operating in reality – we could not of course identify or check or second-guess this), we turned them into ‘ideal type’ discourses that we could look for, a sort of ‘A-Z’ of reasons for not acting. Coincidentally, there actually were 26 of them!

  1. Existing values prevent learning:
    “I’m an old dog, you can’t teach me new tricks”
  2. Existing knowledge contradicts environmental values:
    “I don’t believe in/know climate change is not true/worth worrying about”
  3. Lack of knowledge:
    “I don’t know about climate change/its effects”
  4. Emotional blocking of new knowledge:
    “I don’t want to know/can’t handle knowing about climate change”
  5. Emotional blocking of environmental values/attitudes:
    “I can’t handle caring about climate change”
  6. Defence mechanism denial:
    “Climate change doesn’t exist”
  7. Defence mechanism rational distancing:
    “I can’t react to more bad news”
  8. Defence mechanism apathy and resignation:
  9. Defence mechanism delegation:
    “Not my problem, climate change is others’ problem”
  10. Existing values prevent emotional engagement:
    “I’m not an eco-softy/don’t care about climate change”
  11. Lack of external possibilities and incentives:
    “I can’t (afford to) do anything about climate change”
  12. Negative or insufficient feedback about behaviour:
    “Nothing I do makes a difference”
  13. Lack of internal incentives:
    “What’s in it for me?”
  14. Lack of environmental consciousness:
    “I’m not interested in/don’t care about climate change”
  15. Old behaviour patterns:
    “I’m not changing what I do now, whatever”
  16. Lack of/disabling context:
    “I would, but I can’t”
  17. Lack of/disabling knowledge:
    “I don’t know enough to act”
  18. Lack of/disabling experiences:
    “I can’t do things I have no experience of”
  19. Lack of/conflicting moral obligations to act:
    “It’s not my job, I don’t feel bad”
  20. Lack of/conflicting intrinsic motivation:
    “It’s not the sort of thing I do”
  21. Lack of/conflicting subjective norms:
    “No one I know does it”
  22. Lack of/conflicting environmental threat:
    “It’s not going to affect me”
  23. Lack of/conflicting response efficacy:
    “Nothing I can do will help”
  24. Lack of/conflicting self-efficacy and logistical factors:
    “I can’t do anything, or don’t have the time”
  25. Lack of/conflicting rights and responsibilities:
    “I don’t have to care for the environment”
  26. Lack of environmental values:
    “What about it?”

Finally, we reviewed a literature on cognitive dissonanceOpens in a new tab, which suggests that the emotional conflicts raised by knowledge that one is acting in a way that is out of step with one’s understanding of environmental crisis must be managed. Key ways of managing this include:

‘Discursive strategies of entitlement’

We found evidence for these identified ‘discourses of inaction’ throughout our interviews and workshop data, interestingly with the exception of outright denial and the ‘back to the caves’ trope. In our analysis of the data, however, we identified additional ways of justifying high energy lifestyles, that were not captured by the huge list above.

We have called these tactics discursive strategies, because rather than discourses – storylines or narratives – they are subtle rhetorical strategies of talking about and around inaction on the environment. They mostly use irony and humour, and also a form of distraction. We identified the following strategies:

  • Claiming that ‘we are doing everything we can’:
    e.g. “I can’t really do much more reduction than what I’ve done in using energy … an A rated machine, LED lights everywhere, all the normal things that everybody does”
  • Defining choices ironically as no choice, or a burden:
    e.g. “with the grandchildren … sometimes I have to go over there [to a holiday apartment on a tropical island] … all the family come out … it’s quite big so they take advantage of it … all for nothing”
  • Describing wants or desires as needs:
    e.g. an interviewee with six cars justified owning a sports car because “I need a proper grown-up car [laughter]. So, I needed a grown-up car that felt grown-up and still not grown-up”.
  • Claiming luck and merit, not privilege:
    e.g. “we’re quite lucky even though it’s reasonably close to London … it’s very rural”; “I treated myself, I can’t not have a coffee machine”
  • Laughing off impacts through humour and irony:
    e.g. “I’d hate to think of my carbon footprint [laughter]”
  • Falling back on freedom of choice:
    “I’m all for reducing … the energy that we use … how many miles I drive and wherever I fly and when – but that’s a personal choice about my life, I wouldn’t impose it upon other people … I don’t think it’s acceptable”

So what?

The paper and this blog provide 55 different discourses and strategies that we identified and found being used by our participants. This backs up largely theoretical work with some hard data from people’s talk about energy-consuming lifestyles and how to tackle it. It provides warnings that high consumers think they are environmentalists based on their following government ‘behaviour change’ advice on light bulbs, thermostats and packaging, and have a whole set of tactics to avoid rethinking the high impact aspects of their lives: frequent flying for work and holidays, jobs with endless car mileage, and big gadget-filled houses in leafy commuter suburbs.

Our paper goes into detail about how our high-consuming interviewees used these strategies and excuses differently in interviews (where they were not challenged about the environmental implications of their lifestyles) and in our workshops, where the explicit focus was on the need to tackle high-consuming lifestyles. There, discourses of delay suddenly became more useful to deny the need to take any action, especially those that drew on the UK being inconsequential, a world leader on climate, and not wanting to put ourselves at an economic disadvantage. These more wealthy people argued that everybody is motivated to change purely by ‘self-interest’ and so ‘carrots not sticks’ are appropriate.

Combined with the ‘discursive strategies of entitlement’ we identified, it seems that high-consumers feel they have done their bit. Their high-impact lifestyles are seen as being justified as ‘the good life’ which any rational person would want in our current consumer capitalist society. This suggests that people who need most to reduce their carbon footprints, are not likely to do it voluntarily, and climate justice is probably not best served by bribing the rich.

Other workshop attendees with less energy-consuming lifestyles addressed this directly, asking:

How do we get to the person who doesn’t care … the individual who’s making plenty of money, has a nice big car or two, goes on holidays, does whatever they want … Because they’re big consumers of things that affect our environment, and I’m thinking planes and, you know, gas-guzzling cars and that kind of stuff.

Their answers included violating the sacred ‘freedom of choice’, a lesson that needs to get through to the government:

So we’d have to impose that upon [high energy consumers] – and how do we do that? Probably across the board, something like rationing, where you take the choice away from the person and you say, ‘We can’t trust what you think because you think you’re doing well and you’re really not.

Banner photo credit: Declan Cronin on Unsplash