Power of shame in solving climate impasse

The world is awash in low-carbon technologies that aim to put the breaks on climate change. But perhaps a more limiting factor in solving the problem is the lack of “social technologies.”

From politicians to everyday consumers to corporations, there seems to be a lack of incentives to act green. UK journalist John Whitfield nailed the issue on the head in the latest issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

Whitfield, who has a book coming out next month called, People Will Talk: The Surprising Science of Reputation, says in his essay that in addition to harnessing the sun or wind for the climate’s benefit, we should also harness the power of shame.

There’s been a steady body of research showing how shame, or social reputation, can make a big mark on human behavior. The problem for the climate is that shame works best in smaller social situations where people know and trust one another. It doesn’t work so well when it comes to nations and institutions, and it almost never works when there’s no transparency of information.

Whitfield says what’s needed are more strategies to publicly reward good performers and shame bad ones. There are some good examples to go by. To increase recycling in Japan, some towns required residents to use see-through garbage bags so that a household’s waste stream could be publicly scrutinized. In the U.S., the annually updated Toxic Release Inventory has led to reductions in pollution by making public the emissions of all industrial facilities.

And for consumers, what better way to brand yourself as “green” than driving a Toyota Prius?

Green driving reaches the streets of Thailand. Photo: Ian Fuller.

Climate change is a thorny problem for shame to solve because those causing the most damage are far removed from those who will suffer the worst consequences. Wealthy Westerners emit the most carbon, but are half way around the globe from vulnerable communities and are distant in time from their great-grandchildren. Chances are they will never even see those faces.

“Reputation is built in social connections and dies at social barriers,” says Whitfield. “On climate change, the leaders of rich nations have little reputation to gain or lose by acting to aid unborn generations in distant countries.”

So what can be done?

Carbon emissions must be transparent and have some kind of public penalty. The UK has recently begun displaying plaques on public buildings showing energy efficiency ratings. Whitfield suggests rolling the program out to all homes and stores and giving prizes to the most efficient communities, “in the manner of ‘best-kept village‘ competitions throughout the UK.”

Some of this may strike Americans as too much Big Brother. But making public the data on energy use and efficiency would give public interest groups the opportunity to do something with it. Perhaps we should all know who are the energy savers and who are the energy hogs.