Noel Cass asks: how do the rich justify their high-carbon lifestyles?

Every month, another headline points out that the rich are responsible for the majority of climate-damaging carbon emissions. In January, The Guardian newspaper in the UK reported on a study that found that the “difference between the carbon emissions of the rich and the poor within a country is now greater than the differences in emissions between countries”. In December, Carbon Brief focused on a paper that found that the “wealthiest people in the UK burn through more energy flying than the poorest use in every aspect of their lives”. 

Academics looking at energy use and climate, on the other hand, have tended to focus on energy poverty. They have tended to ignore the people who everyone agrees bear the most responsibility for the most carbon emitting household activities, such as commuting to work by car, flying for multiple, novelty-seeking holidays, and so on. 

I am part of a group of researchers  working on a project  – titled  Excess –  that looked  at those heavy consumers. 

I interviewed 30 high-energy consumers to hear about their lifestyles in their own words, without judgement. This was in a bid to find out how they justified and normalised their high-carbon lives, to themselves and to us. My colleagues and I confirmed what other researchers had previously suggested:

On top of these known strategies people use for explaining why they do not change their behaviour, we found new tactics based on using irony and humour.

People use all sorts of mental gymnastics to manage the cognitive dissonance between their belief in the climate crisis and their desires to, for example, fly all the time.

For instance, they may laugh that they are “probably the worst people on the planet, at least from an energy point of view”, and then joke that they have offset this by not having children. Or they explain their long car commutes by claiming that there is “no option but to work in London for certain jobs when you live round here”, which they then reveal as being because “we made a lifestyle choice to live far enough away [from work] to have a bit more space and greenery”. 

Other choices that our interviewees described as needs were SUVs for their straight-backed seats (“I need a car that’s good for my back”), or a car purely to drive to their horse’s stables (“if I didn’t have a horse… I sort of need it to get to her”). 

When a claim of “need’ was clearly ludicrous, it would be delivered with a wink, whether relating to a coffee machine (“I thought, well, I need one of these. Got to get one of these,”) or a sports car (“I need a proper grown-up car [laughter]… that felt grown-up and still not grown-up”).

We called these humour-based approaches ‘discursive strategies of entitlement’.

Outside these admissions, people whose lives involved obviously high-carbon impacts portrayed themselves as environmentalists who were doing “all the normal things that everybody does” to reduce their energy use. They claimed straight-faced: “I can’t really do much more reduction than what I’ve done,” and “We all did our best to keep things efficient and as green as possible”. The detail of “doing everything we can,” turned out to mean simple actions that the government had been promoting for years such as replacing light bulbs, turning down thermostats a degree or two, and buying A++ rated appliances and white goods. Our interviewees felt that these actions were all that they could be expected to do for the planet.

”Doing everything we can,” turned out to mean simple actions such as replacing lightbulbs.

We went on to hold workshops to discuss how the high-carbon lifestyles of the rich might be tackled through policy. 

In one workshop we talked to our eight highest-consuming (and frequent-flying) interviewees and in another, we held discussions with newly-recruited people with low travel, home, or home and travel-related energy consumption in another three. 

Here our high consumers switched to describing action to reduce carbon emissions as pointless, especially in ways that chimed with a Brexit-influenced British exceptionalism. They suggested that the UK’s contribution was tiny, we shouldn’t make ourselves uncompetitive in a hostile world economy, where other countries weren’t taking action. 

They also switched to talking about others who didn’t know or care, and asked for carrots not sticks to “bribe” people into proper behaviour. Our low consumers instead identified exactly what we had found:

“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.”

“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’.”

Unlike the UK government, the public see freedom of choice as part of the problem. 

Noel Cass

Noel is a Research Fellow in Energy Demand Behaviour in the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, UK. His research for over 30 years has focussed on …

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