Climate shaming and the What the Hell effect

Is there a better way to drive climate action?

“I don’t like Greta Thundberg.”  The statement from my friend caught me off guard.  He has a PhD in Physics from Harvard, a law degree from Yale, and believes in climate change.  And so it was not a statement I was expecting.


He went on to explain that Greta was always warning us of the perils of our inaction on climate change, and at times, some statements can be characterized as simply shaming.  To him, that was off-putting. Take for example Greta’s speech to the United Nations in 2019.  


“How dare you.”

“How dare you pretend…”

“How dare you continue to look away....”


The speech and in particular the “How dare you” line made waves across the news and even led to an entertaining exchange between her and Donald Trump on Twitter.  Her fans, myself included, and many climate change supporters cheered.  However, is it fair to ask if the speech led any climate deniers to change their mind, or even spurred tangible actions by those that do believe in climate change and have the power to do something about it?

Shaming drives us underground

The one thing that this past few years has taught us is that shaming, let alone public shaming, does not work. Research has consistently shown that people have the tendency to dig in and become further entrenched in their own beliefs when confronted with opposing views.


Though that may not be surprising, especially for highly partisan issues, there’s an intriguing behavior among some of those who are sympathetic or even wholeheartedly agree with your beliefs. It’s an alternate reality that many of us do not readily admit: We don’t always practice what we preach.  Because of social shaming, people are driven underground and hide the same behaviors that they may publicly speak in support of.  And that has severe negative consequences when solutions require collective action.


"Your righteousness doesn’t have a place in the conversation," says Susannah Bradley, Director of Emerging Audiences at SunCommon, a New England based solar company and organizer of the Climate Action Film Festival


Take for example COVID.  The majority of Americans understand and agree with the need to wear masks and avoid social gatherings to limit the spread and impact of the virus.  However, a One Poll survey found that 54% of people have hidden the fact that they have gotten together with friends and family during the pandemic.  They have also refrained from posting to social media like they normally would to avoid being publicly shamed.


This is further exacerbated by the What the Hell effect.  This effect is best explained by an example.  Imagine you’re on a diet.  One day you’re working late and see a box of cookies.  You’re hungry. In that moment you grab one and take a bite.  Even though it’s just one bite, your brain rationalizes your behavior by saying, “You already blew your diet...what the hell, you might as well eat the entire box.”  


We’ve all been there.  We visit family, initially masked, but then go “What the hell” and we take off the mask.  We accidentally start throwing a piece of plastic into the trash bin instead of the recycling bin and then go “What the hell” and dump the rest of the recycling into the trash.  


What’s most surprising about this effect is that psychologists have found that it’s the feeling of shame of failing to meet the original goal set by ourselves or a standard set by others that leads people to go “What the hell” and continue on with that behavior.

Human behavior is a spectrum

There’s an interesting psychology at play here.  It’s easy for us to think of matters in terms of black and white, but with our actual behavior, black and white is very difficult.  For example, a year and half of social distancing is very, very hard. Avoiding plastic is very, very hard.  


The answer in counteracting this very tall challenge that we set for ourselves lies in understanding and accepting that it doesn’t have to be black or white, all or nothing.  Human behavior is a spectrum.  Impact and progress can be made by working along that spectrum.  Furthermore, providing people with concrete methods that guide them along that spectrum can help avoid the What the Hell effect or pushing people underground with their behavior.  


For COVID, risk assessments were key to providing an outlet for people to deal with the isolation of the pandemic. Risk assessments allowed us to understand that being outdoors, even in a public setting, was relatively safe compared to being indoors.  Risk budgets allowed people, and families in particular, to plan out a set of activities and match them with their own risk tolerance.  

A better way to drive climate action 

Can the same concept be applied to climate change?  There’s been a growing shift in how Americans feel about climate change.  


“We found that 72% of Americans believe in climate change and 55% feel an urgency to do something about it,” says Brooke Betts, the VP of US Campaigns at Rare, a DC based non-profit that leads environmental sustainability campaigns worldwide.  

Given those stats, do we need doom and gloom stories or climate shaming?  The awareness and will to act already exist. What we really need is to provide people with tangible options to make an impact.  But what are their options?  


The first things that come to mind to most people are big government policies or on a personal level, installing solar or buying an electric vehicle (EV).  Those are all needed, but they are also big decisions that are either not easy to make or people are in no position to make in the first place. For example, 89% of Americans want more solar power, but 43 million households rent.  Buying an EV is now seen as cool, but it still costs $35,000+.  


The concern is that this will drive some fraction of those 55% of American to simply say “What the hell” and continue with the status quo.  To guard against this, we need to provide guidance and more options for people to operate on that spectrum of behavior between the status quo and a cleaner brighter future.  For many people, this guidance needs to start with smaller steps, easier to achieve goals that allow us to graduate to bigger and bigger goals. 


One such program is Rare’s Make it Personal campaign.  The campaign specifically targets Americans who are asking the question, “What can I do about climate change.”  The campaign identified 7 individual behaviors people can adopt with the greatest potential for climate impact. 


Below is a list of the 7 taken from Rare’s Make it Personal website:  


  1. Don’t waste food - Over 40% of American adults say it would be “easy” or “very easy” to reduce their food waste. Reducing food waste means using fewer resources to get the food to your table and sending less food to the landfill where it produces methane— a potent greenhouse gas and major contributor to climate change.
  2. Fly one less time - Flying one less time for frequent business travelers was easily achieved with a global pandemic. But as restrictions lift, will you continue to make more effective use of technology to avoid the high carbon impact of frequent flying? It’s a change that will save companies money, and give you more time at home.
  3. Adopt a plant rich diet - 2/3 of Americans have already started eating less meat. This is great news because a plant-rich diet is healthier and at least 50x less carbon intensive.
  4. Buy carbon offsets - Carbon offsets are investments in projects that take carbon out of the atmosphere—like planting trees or capturing emissions. It cost 7x less to offset the typical American footprint than most people expect.
  5. Contract for green energy - Moving to renewable energy sources is one of the most important actions you can take to reduce your impact—whether you buy renewable energy from your provider, or purchase rooftop solar. While the cost of solar panels has dropped 70% since 2016, 97% of Americans over-estimate the cost.
  6. Electrify your vehicle - More U.S. commuters get to work without a car than in the past. But for the majority who do still rely on a car, driving an electric vehicle offers a lower long-term total cost of ownership and drives down carbon emissions.
  7. Get engaged - Humans are social creatures. We pay attention to what our friends and neighbors are doing and saying. Just talking about these changes with your friends, colleagues and family is one of the biggest contributing factors to reducing your carbon impact. 


Rare estimated that if just 10% of Americans adopted these behaviors, it would reduce U.S. annual emissions by an estimated 460 million metric tons of CO2 or about the same as closing half the coal powered plants in the U.S. for one year.  


Climate action at exponential scale

The steps in The Make it Personal campaign focus on individual behavior, but it is step 7 Get Engaged that is most important in addressing climate change.  By getting engaged, talking to our friends and family, we can leverage the virality of our social networks and appeal to the social FOMO (Fear of missing out) to get others to follow our lead.  


Once an idea or behavior hits a critical mass of 25%, it creates a tipping point where the entire group quickly follows suit.  That is how we can get the exponential growth in climate action that will counter the 100 years of climate debt that we’ve accumulated.  


“We don’t have time to shame,” says Nico Johnson, Founder of SunCast Media on a recent Earth Day panel


And so please, take action.  Then tell your friends about it, and then take more action.