Sometimes I can’t remember where reality ends and satire begins. This week the royal couple paid a state visit to Vienna. On it twitter account I read from the Royal Palace that the visit was, among other things, about sustainable mobility. With above a picture of Willem-Alexander and Máxima getting off the plane! Like opening a biodiversity conference with a big all-you-can-eat beef barbecue! On Wednesday afternoon, the royal couple were picked up from Graz in an empty plane. Our royal family thus pretends that the climate crisis is not to be solved by the elite, and misses a rather obvious opportunity to set a good example.
The royal house said the decision to fly was made “on the basis of efficiency, sustainability and cost”. Nevertheless, it would have been better to take into account the enormous effect of the good example. It had been big news. It is also a small step towards a new standard. Its importance cannot be overstated. Good example leads to good following.
That a good example can be a decisive factor for the success of climate policy was investigated earlier this year by a team of American scientists. In the magazine Nature they address a deficiency in climate models. In all models, the greenhouse gas emissions are described according to fixed common socio-economic paths. These are possible descriptions or scenarios of how society, politics and technology will develop. Future emissions are linked to each scenario, and a climate model then calculates what this means for temperature, extreme weather, sea level, etc. But all scenarios are static and ignore the power of social and technological upheaval. By taking such processes into account, the researchers estimate that there is a significantly greater chance that global warming will remain limited to 2 degrees.
Next to the bubble nuts
Social feelings, attitudes and norms can change quickly. Smoking is seen today as unhealthy, while thirty years ago at a party, the cigarettes were still on the table next to the nuts. The social attitude towards sustainable living is also moving in that direction. Social conformity – wanting the same as the people around you – plays a crucial role in this. But where social conformity arises diffusely and from below, there is also the reinforcing effect of exemplary function. In sociological terms credibility-enhancing display feedback, where climate-friendly behavior by an influential person encourages others to do the same. Good example leads to good following.
Author and journalist Emma Pattee has introduced an interesting concept for the multiplicative nature of a good example: the climate shadow. It is the shadow you cast through the combined effect of your direct use of raw materials (the old-fashioned climate footprint), your choices (your voting behavior, the content of your work, the nature of your investments) and the attention you give. to the climate. The latter is also a good example. The greener your choices and behavior, the smaller your shadow. By looking beyond your personal footprint, Pattee argues, your positive impact on the world becomes more complete. Who has the smallest climate shadow: Someone who gets on a plane a few times a year to shape a more ambitious climate policy? Or someone who cycles to work to design commercials for a major oil company? According to the narrow individual definition of the footprint, the last person is greener. I don’t know who has the smallest climate shadow.
The daily charts
Should a climate scientist also live an environmentally conscious life? Should I only speak for an ambitious climate policy if I go to work by bicycle? Earlier this month I was in Spitsbergen for work and there is no train. Does it weaken my message? I think this is a difficult problem. For me and most climate scientists, just the daily graphs we make are enough to be climate conscious in life. But is it fundamentally necessary to be taken seriously? The fact is that a message is more persuasive if the messenger himself acts on it.
In Austria, the king spoke with climate minister Leonore Gewessler and companies about “making motorized transport more sustainable, innovations in e-mobility, autonomous driving, hydrogen applications and battery technology”. But these are the wrong topics, put on the agenda by big companies. Sustainable mobility is less mobility. Driving less, car sharing, flying much less, cycling more. And take the train more often. In their exemplary role, the royal family should have seen the golden opportunity for a sustainable train journey to Austria.
Peter Kuiper’s Munneke is a glaciologist at Utrecht University and a weatherman at NOS
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 2 July 2022