Recycling Won't Cut It

Timid textbooks and government guidelines largely fail to discuss the most effective ways individuals can fight climate change.
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How can each of us help mitigate the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change? If your first thought was "recycle," or "install solar panels on my home," that's not surprising: Such recommendations are typical of the advice people receive from official sources.

Unfortunately, in terms of making a real difference, these actions amount to small change. The behavioral changes that really would make a difference, such as living car-free or having fewer children, seldom enter the conversation.

That's the conclusion of a newly published study, which finds climate change-related recommendations in both government documents and high-school textbooks are timid and inadequate.

"One textbook says 'Making a difference doesn't have to be difficult,' and provides the example of switching from plastic bags to reusable shopping bags," write Seth Wynes of the University of British Columbia and Kimberly Nicholas of Sweden's Lund University. "This is less than one percent as effective (in mitigating climate change) as a year without eating meat."

"Examples like this represent missed opportunities to encourage serious engagement on climate change and high-impact actions," they add.

In the journal Environmental Research Letters, Wynes and Nicholas consulted expert opinion to compare various climate-change mitigation strategies that the average person can implement. They then examined the official recommendations for the public provided by major Western governments.

"No textbook suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions, and only two mentioned avoiding air travel."

They also analyzed suggestions included in 10 Canadian textbooks. "It is especially important that adolescents are prepared for this shift," they note. "They still have the freedom to make behavioral choices that will structure the rest of their lives," they note.

But do they get adequate guidance? The results suggest the answer is a clear "no."

The researchers identified a dozen pro-environment actions individuals can take, and determined four of the most effective are having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet.

"These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household light bulbs (eight times)," they note.

And yet, "We find that high school science textbooks from Canada, as well as government resources from the European Union, United States, Canada, and Australia largely fail to mention these actions," they write. Instead, they tend to focus on "incremental changes with much smaller potential emissions reductions."

"We found that textbooks overwhelmingly focused on moderate or low-impact actions," Wynes and Nicholas report. "No textbook suggested having fewer children as a way to reduce emissions, and only two mentioned avoiding air travel."

"The recommendation category mentioned in the most textbooks was recycling, and the recommendation category with the most individual actions mentioned was energy conservation," they write. Recycling is near the bottom of their list in terms of actual impact, as are such energy-conservation measures as hang-drying clothes and washing them in cold water.

That textbook is from Canada. But given that, in at least one U.S. state, the curriculum is heavily influenced by the oil industry, there is little reason to believe things are better here.

The researchers note that "some high-impact actions may be politically unpopular," which is presumably why governments and school boards are reluctant to discuss them. But we've got to get serious about this threat.

Adolescents facing a bleak future—especially for their kids—may be more willing to shift their behavior than we realize. But that'll only happen if they understand the most effective ways they can take action.

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