How well do people understand the climate impact of individual actions?

Abstract

Misunderstandings in the relative efficacy of pro-environmental behaviors may have important consequences for climate mitigation efforts. In this study, we evaluate the ability to perceive the carbon footprint associated with individual actions, known as “carbon numeracy,” in 965 members of the North American public using ranking and tradeoff questions. The questions are designed to independently assess the role of knowledge, ability to do tradeoffs, and basic numeracy skills in determining carbon numeracy. We report multiple lines of evidence suggesting that people underestimate greenhouse gas emissions associated with air travel and, to a lesser extent, meat consumption. They are also largely incapable of making tradeoffs between different actions (e.g., the number of hamburgers that would be equivalent to a trans-Atlantic flight in terms of climate impact). Concern for climate change, political orientation, and education were not significant predictors of accuracy in making tradeoffs, but basic numeracy was linked with increased accuracy. The results suggest that further education may be necessary to improve carbon numeracy by providing the public with a basic hierarchy of actions according to carbon reduction efficacy. Consumers seeking to balance their carbon budgets may benefit from external aids (e.g., carbon labels associated with actions) to guide emission-related decision-making.

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Correspondence to Seth Wynes.

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Wynes, S., Zhao, J. & Donner, S.D. How well do people understand the climate impact of individual actions?. Climatic Change (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-020-02811-5

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Keywords

  • Carbon numeracy
  • Decision-making
  • Climate change mitigation
  • Pro-environmental behaviors
  • Air travel
  • Meat consumption