It is important to understand how individuals in affluent societies reason around their own actions in relation to climate change. However, much of the research has focused on sceptics and those who have little interest in change. Studying those who want to contribute to a transition and why they fail is also of interest. This study is qualitative and deals with the internal reasoning of a self-selected sample of Swedes with sustainable values who argue in relation to a failed intention. Ca 400 responses were analysed. We used topos theory to identify thinking structures that guide the arguments used to deal with the cognitive dissonance that acting against knowledge and intention results in. The most common ways to argue were to imagine a climate account with possible deposits and withdrawals, or a budget which you strive to keep. Also common was to compare with something or someone that was ”worse”. Redirecting responsibility was also an argument, albeit complicating the issue of responsibility. The limits of reality were used as an excuse for action, whereas articulating the goal conflicts of a less emitting life made choices visible. Finally, the human condition of not always meeting your own standards was mentioned. These arguments only partly overlap common discourses of delay in the public sphere.
“I hadn’t done it in four years, and the plane would have taken off anyway. And I decided it was the last time”.
Most of us recognize this way of excusing ourselves when we have done something that we know is questionable and goes against our conviction. This particular quote is given by an informer to explain why s/he did not manage to act according to knowledge or intention in a specific, described situation. It displays several arguments: It was a long time ago (and therefore an exception), the contribution was negligible or even non-existing for systemic reasons (planes take off anyway), and it will not be repeated (intention for the future). We, the audience, are expected to overlook something which is clearly out of the ordinary; we are also expected to understand that something which is really on a systemic level is not the person’s fault; and finally, since it will never happen again, we should move on.
Delay discourses are ubiquitous and sustain inertia in the transformation to a sustainable society. To limit climate change, we need to better understand the arguments that support status quo. Research that in some way or other grapple with the question of why the transition is so slow is carried out from various perspectives and in different disciplines. Our research analyses how individuals reason and argue around climate change and in particular in relation to their own actions. A substantial part of the literature explaining the inertia with focus on individual behavior has dealt with climate sceptics who refute science and do not want to change (Jylhä, 2017; Poortinga et al., 2011). We believe that this skews our understanding and should be balanced with research on those who want to, or try to, act sustainably in relation to climate change, but fail. It is of key importance that we try to understand why they fail, and this study contributes to this effort.
We argue that even though Sweden is a small country, it is of general interest to study Swedes. They have high per capita emissions, and at the same time, their possibilities to change behavior are particularly good. Sweden is a welfare state where the government and public authorities have had high ambitions on climate-change action and mitigation for decades (Larsson Heidenblad, 2021). Environmental issues rank high in the public sphere and climate change are among the issues that Swedes worry about (Jönsson, 2021; Vi-skogen & Retriever, 2020). Awareness of climate change is also high, and trust in science and institutions is likewise considerable (Bergman et al., 2021; Gullers Grupp, 2021; Weissenbilder, 2021). Many believe that efforts should be made to arrive at a sustainable society (Jönsson, 2021). Together these features should offer a particularly fertile ground for transmission. Still, it is too slow also in Sweden. How people with sustainable values reason in a country that wants to take the lead in the transition can shed light on how the internal processes of change come about and help us improve climate communication.
We use rhetoric topos theory as a method to analyse the arguments that support status quo, described further below. This is a new approach to address pressing knowledge needs in sustainability research and yields innovative empirical results. Moreover, this study adds to the growing research within environmental humanities, complementing a field of research which has for long been dominated by natural and social science. We can, furthermore, contribute knowledge on how people justify their action ex post, not how they might reason in a particular situation ex ante.
2 Theoretical starting point and relevant earlier research
That people act in accordance with their knowledge, and intention is a prevalent idea dating back to Socrates and Plato and would explain non-action and delay with lack of knowledge. This information deficit model states that communication needs to improve for people to learn more and then act. Even though it has been severely criticized (Moser and Dilling, 2011), Suldovsky claims that much environmental and climate communication in practice builds on it (Suldovsky, 2017).
Related to this discussion on climate information and communication is research on the knowledge–action gap, which is long-standing and carried out in many disciplines. It can either focus on the individual or the collective, discuss failure of pro-environmental behavior or inertia. Also studies of resistance can be brought into this literature as it presents related discourses. Kollmuss and Agyeman (2002) made an encompassing and extremely well-cited review of research on barriers to pro-environmental behavior that has become a classic in the field. There are research on cognitive or emotional mechanisms hindering engagement in issues of this kind (Kahneman, 2011; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Psychological strategies to avoid taking climate knowledge seriously or even rejecting it have been detailed by both Gifford (2011) and Stoknes (2015). Others have stressed the importance of cultural values in appreciating information (Kahan, 2015) or social practices of distance keeping (Norgaard, 2011a). There are also studies that focus on the nature of the climate problem such as being distant, ambiguous, overwhelming, or contentious (Hulme, 2009), and those that detail how science is undermined (Oreskes & Conway, 2010).
A recent contribution to this scholarship tried to categorize delay in the public discourse in a deductive fashion, identifying 12 types of inertia and putting them into four separate types of arguments of delay: surrender, redirect responsibility, push non-transformative solutions, and emphasize the downsides (Lamb et al., 2020). Lamb et al. (2020) argue that these discourses are dangerous to the public; however, they do not relate to the literature on how the public reasons, nor do they refer to neither Kollmuss and Agyeman, Gifford nor Stoknes. This is noteworthy and might indicate that this field is now becoming increasingly fragmented. It may have to do with disciplinary boundaries and the difficulty in treating both the individual level and the public discourse at the same time. Still, a comparison reveals that most of the discourses of climate delay that Lamb et al. identify have been discussed before.
A rationalist starting point is that people reason with themselves to arrive at an action, often a stance attributed to the logical reasoning of, for example Plato. Aristotle, however, recognized in his On Rhetoric that regarding moral or political goal conflicts people often, on the contrary, strive to argue for a position already taken. This has been corroborated in recent research (Kahan, 2015). Later, rhetorical studies understand reasoning in regard to multifaceted and value-laden issues as internal dialogue (Billig, 1996; Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1971). They see this inner deliberation as an important dimension of human thinking and the constitution of our conscience and our moral. The internal dialogue is key to human meaning-making, which is linguistic and argumentative. It is, furthermore, dependent on and co-evolves with the social and cultural conversations that the individual is engaged in and part of; there is a mutual shaping of the individual and the collective level. Thus, the inner dialogue is expected to reflect the value systems and thinking structures of a larger surrounding group and the discourses of society.
This theoretical understanding allows for an investigation of the knowledge–action or the intention–action gap through an analysis of the internal dialogue. When individual action (or non-action) goes against knowledge or intention, people experience what Festinger called cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957).Footnote 1 Since, according to rhetorical theory, people strive to be consistent and avoid contradictions, the behavior must be rationalized if we want to live in peace with ourselves. This rationalization, argumentation, or justification can lend itself to analysis if expressed linguistically.
3 Methodology and data
To analyse the internal deliberations, we have used topos theory which has its roots in Aristotelian rhetorical teachings. Topos means place in Greek, but in rhetorical theory, the term is used to describe how people perspectivize using language. Topos theory offers a conceptual framework to discern the structures of reasoning in multifaceted issues, often moral or political. A topos can be understood as a recurring way of organizing thinking that produces arguments, which are considered valid or have persuasive power in a certain cultural context. Topoi are ways of reasoning which have a good track record and, therefore, the potential to be taken seriously again. Topos theory has been used before to study environmental and climate issues (for instance, Ceccarelli, 2011; Walsh & Prelli, 2017).
Topoi can be found within a material by looking at the rhetorical structures behind the arguments. Recurring argument types can be sorted, categorized, discussed, and described. As such they can also be used as prototypes for producing arguments in new but similar situations. Topoi can be structural, like different kinds of comparisons. Comparisons are certain ways of establishing relations to make a claim. Other ways are different modes of letting an example represent the whole or reasoning from analogy. Some topoi are based on thinking patterns or metaphors, such as budget thinking. All these types of topoi could also be described as kinds of thinking structures. We call them topoi when they are used persuasively by invoking the views, values or thinking habits of an imagined audience, often as modes of responding to an allegation or reasoning regarding a goal conflict.
We used topos theory in combination with a phenomenographic approach. Phenomenography is a qualitative, interpretive method suitable for capturing the variety of ways people experience or think about a phenomenon through its linguistical expression (Marton, 1986; Marton & Booth, 1997). Since we were interested in the specific experiences of a particular group rather than the average population, this approach matched our goal to describe a range of possible perceptions or views of a particular problem or question.
Even though there is a resemblance to discourse analysis or frame analysis, it is important to recognize that we have a particular interest in finding the arguments and connected thinking structures that are meaningful to the individual. In this article, we, furthermore, do not distinguish between arguments that, for example legitimize, justify, rationalize, or excuse, which would be another way of sorting (Wolrath Söderberg & Wormbs, 2022).
Our conclusions build on an analysis of the open answers of the self-selected respondents to a survey which was produced in the tool Survey Monkey adhering to the terms of the EU data management of GDPR. The survey contained 16 questions of which the first pertained to data handling and the three last to age, gender, and educational level. Among the twelve central questions, the first set were multiple choice. We first asked if a sustainable lifestyle was important or not (Q2). Only positive answers to this question were part of the data. The second central question concerned self-assessed knowledge level on climate change (Q3), and thirdly, the informants were asked if it ever happened that they did something they knew was bad for the climate. Here, the multiple choices related to time and frequency (Q4). Any answers that stated ”No, not really” were discarded from the sample.
The next set of questions were open and free. They dealt with a particular situation. We asked the respondents to detail a situation when they had acted against their own knowledge or intention (Q5). We then asked why they thought they did it (Q6), and if they were aware that they acted against their knowledge or intention at the time (Q7). A question on whether or not they justified their answers to themselves followed (Q8), and then, finally, we asked ”In that case, what arguments did you use? How did you convince yourself it was okay?” (Q9). This question was the most important one in the survey. In the last batch of questions, we asked when the situation happened (Q10), if they would do the same thing again (Q11), and what had made them change behavior (Q12) or what might convince them to change their behavior in the future (Q13). All questions were in Swedish, and the vast majority of answers were given in Swedish.
Data were gathered through the spread of the survey in social media, primarily Facebook groups on climate change and on Twitter highlighting the questions: “Do you have sustainable values? Have you acted against your intention? Tell us about it!”. The link to the survey was also published on the project website at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. We circulated the survey on 13 March 2019, repeated postings in different social media, and stopped collecting answers 28 April 2019. At that time, 453 replies had been registered with Survey Monkey. We removed a certain number of replies either for the reasons mentioned above, or because the replies were in some way crooked and impossible to use. We settled for a dataset of 399 responses. As will be illustrated below, one response can contain several arguments and thinking structures.
We do not know how representative this sample is. However, our ambition is not to make claims about how Swedes in general argue, nor are we interested in coupling answers with age, gender, or educational level. We are interested in possible arguments and thinking structures in this context. Furthermore, we are interested in how these thinking structures relate to public discourses, which we find in the literature.
Contrary to many surveys on climate change and the public, we asked people to describe an event that had already happened, rather than pondering decisions they might take in future. Moreover, we asked them to present their reasoning with their own words rather than tic pre-selected alternatives. The resulting texts are the core empirical material. We realize that research in the humanities seldomly use surveys to collect empirical material and that this method might lead to the expectation that we also want to be quantitative in our analysis. However, this investigation is qualitative.
We used an inductive and bottom-up approach. One of us did the original coding in relation to topos theory. Within the open-text responses, different topoi were discerned and tagged. We then went through all the types again, a process in which certain topoi were re-tagged, some were grouped together, and some were separated in an inductive fashion.Footnote 2 It was possible to divide the topoi into six different thinking structures, which will be detailed in the next section.
To illustrate the method, we will display a few examples. Let us consider the response: “Overall, I live a climate friendly life and an occasional failure is very human”. This quote illustrates three arguments and three very general thinking structures. The “I” who live a climate-friendly life implies a comparison with others or with a norm. A “climate friendly life” indicates an idea of a balance between good and bad deeds. And finally, the word “overall” shows that the (non)action was an exception, a human shortcoming that should be allowed. The general thinking structures are comparison with others who are worse, husbandry and the human condition.
In the following quote, other arguments show up: “I cannot solve the climate crisis by myself. It must happen on the societal level. I go nuts when others don’t do anything or oppose”. The first sentence redirects responsibility, albeit without totally renouncing it. The second sentence places responsibility on other levels. The third sentence relates the personal feeling to the non-compliance of others. The thinking structures here are placement of responsibility and comparison with others who are worse.
The response “I am thinking that other mothers without children who have ADHD can choose not to fly” contains both an open comparison, responsibility placement, and inferred limits of reality, as travelling with children with special needs is not feasible. Finally, “My trip is about visiting close and dear [people]” infers a goal conflict between climate-friendly behavior and maintaining contact with loved ones, but also implies a comparison with other reasons that are worse.
Before presenting our results, we would like to initially share an overview of how situations are distributed. The most common situation that people detail relates to some kind of transport; flying is the most common followed by driving or going by car. A few mention the bus. This is interesting for several reasons. Transport is one of the three areas in focus in the current national debate in Sweden. There is a political aim of reducing emissions from transport in 2030 with 70% compared to the levels of 2010, the first report from the Climate Policy Council, tasked with overseeing the policy efforts of the government, focused on transports, and there has been an extensive public discussion in Sweden on private flying since January 2018 (Jacobson et al., 2020; Wolrath Söderberg & Wormbs, 2019; Wormbs & Wolrath Söderberg, 2021). Flying to and from Swedish airports has indeed dropped with about 35% compared to 2017 levels, i.e. before the flight debate started.Footnote 3 Compared to housing and food, transport, especially flying, is an area where individuals can more readily change their behavior and their efforts can have significant consequences. About a fourth of the situations relate to food, where meat or dairy are most common followed by whether or not the food is organic. General consumption, clothes, and housing are less common.
In this section, we will detail the larger groups of related topoi that we have found in our material and which we have sorted into six general thinking structures. Each group contains several versions of which we treat those we find most important and frequently occurring. A general point is that it is very common that one person uses several arguments, as illustrated above. In the public discourse (and some scholarly writings (Scott et al., 2019)), there is an understanding that individuals adhere to a particular type of reasoning, implying that one individual only has one way of relating to a specific issue. On the contrary, our data show that one person can harbour many arguments and sometimes even contradictory perspectives and at the same time be more or less aware of his or her actions. This is worthwhile to underline. Awareness of the multitude of thoughts structures in one individual alone affects the possibilities to interact with certain arguments rather than others and still relate to the thinking structures of the person. There is not only one way to address delay arguments.
The most common topoi include budget and account thinking which belong to an economic sphere of thinking which we call husbandry. The budget topos, in which you imagine something like a personal emission permit, is different from the account topos, which includes transactions in the form of deposits and withdrawals. However, the distinction is not always made clear in the deliberations in our material and is, furthermore, obscured in practice by a few misunderstandings.
One respondent legitimized an extra-long shower: “Since I almost always do what is best for the environment, I think it is ok if I waste water once. There is a lot of water in Sweden”. Another argued for eating meat: “No car, don’t fly, and try not to buy new stuff”. Or, in relation to a flight: ”I argued that my overall lifestyle is very climate-friendly: I hardly consume new things, don’t own a car and have cut back substantially on meat and dairy”.
Account thinking, or balancing, is the idea is that you lead a life that is in general environmentally friendly, and thus, a few actions that are harmful are okay. They balance each other. For example you bike to work, eat vegetarian, and recycle and you can, therefore, occasionally, fly or take the car.
This is also close to a topos where engagement is the currency. You count your own or a relative’s engagement in climate issues as a positive deposit, and you are then allowed to make a negative withdrawal in the form of an airplane ride: “those who are knowledgeable and work actively towards climate change should be given greater freedom in making climate-damaging choices”. Political engagement, climate anxiety, or planning for investing in solar panels are mentioned as input justifying certain climate-damaging behavior.
A version of this is to count efforts in general. “[I] do so much else that is good for the climate”. You have made an effort in biking or abstained from meat and should, therefore, be allowed to spend. Some respondents argue that they have made green choices for a long time, adding to the account, and, therefore, can withdraw time-saving actions that are less climate-friendly. In some responses, efforts during everyday life are used to legitimize deviations on specific occasions. This reasoning is sometimes coupled with the understanding of the action being a ”slip”, which for that particular reason should be excused. This is related to thinking structures focusing on the human condition.
At times, the balancing is articulated as a budget: “In general I always use public transport, bike or walk (don’t have a car or a driver’s license)—then I can spend my ‘quota’ on flying instead”. Interestingly enough, the size of the budget is not detailed, which means that the reasoning can be conflated with account thinking.
Different kinds of comparisons are among the most common topoi. For this to work, you must compare to someone or something else “worse” than yourself. Since most people can find a comparison that fulfils this criterion, this topos is functional as a defence strategy. “I am still better than them”, “others travel more often than I”, and “several people go by car every day”.
Some respondents use the comparison explicitly, but it can also be discerned behind or in combination with several other topoi. Some compare to other people who are close to them, like family and friends, but more commonly the comparison is done with an imprecise “everyone”, “others”, “people”, “the rich”, “politicians”, or “corporate leaders”. Sometimes, it ís only hinted at, as an implied other, by the emphasis on an “I” who, on the whole, live sustainably. Since someone else emits more that you do, your action is okay. Trivial as it might sound, this is important since it turns out that many comparisons are built not on knowledge of ”the other” but on argued perception of “the other”.
Comparison can also be done in relation to other types of emissions rather than other emitters. Again, if the comparison is shrewdly made, any other business will have a greater footprint than the one you contribute to.
Finally, comparison can also be framed in relation to oneself. In those cases, the deed in question can be related to some other action that you could have performed, typically expressed as “at least it is better than”, or “it could have been worse”. However, it can also be part of an intention not quite fulfilled or a comparison with an older version of yourself.
A particular version of comparison deserves special attention: to minimize your own action by stressing that the contribution is futile or even that it—through its miniscule size compared to other things—does not exist. We call this topos tiny-me. Sometimes, the comparison is with the entire world: “my small emissions are negligible globally” or “my action is a drop in the ocean”. The argument is different from a general comparison, which may recognize that the emission indeed counts, but should be excused. Tiny-me suggests that the size actually means that the emission is negligible due to its size. This argument does not have to be explicit but can also be implicit.
4.3 Why should I
Closely related to this way of reasoning is “why should I sacrifice myself” followed by something like “when others don’t give a darn”. This kind of argument conveys a certain bitterness and creates a dichotomy between the personal lifestyle and that of others. In this context, it is also possible to compare the aims of your own actions with those of others, where your own flight is justifiable and good, and other people’s flying are for pleasure only and bad. The personal moral is compared to that of the other and justifies the behavior.
A limited number of respondents argue that change needs to happen on another level, but the level of responsibility shifts; it can be politicians, corporations, or the market. Some mention “the rich”, but it can also be unclear.
In some responses, a certain hopelessness is visible, through statements like “there is no point in me doing anything if the system does not change”, or “as an individual I am only a small part of a system”. A few show a strong distrust in consumer power. Other responses contain a revolutionary spirit and ask for more drastic societal change or political guidance. These answers, albeit few, all create a tension between the individual and the system.
In these responses, individual behavioral change is not denied, but there is a negotiation of how responsibility for the failure should be distributed. There is an appeal for forgiveness or understanding of the fact that the individual is a victim and somebody else is responsible. There are even arguments of justice: “Moreover it is really unfair to blame us consumers and our bad choices and not the companies that actually emit”. Here, the issue of guilt is also brought in, as well as shame.
4.4 Limits of reality
Other common topoi have to do with the limits of reality. Often arguments circle around what is practical and how to manage your daily life in a social and private or professional context. That the sustainable option is more expensive is used as an argument to take the option that is less sustainable. If you do not have enough money you cannot afford to act according to your values. Sometimes, this topos is very explicit, sometimes it is implicit. Time also features in this group of topoi. “To use public transport would have costed me 1,5 hours with my kid every day”. Or “Lack of time. Would not have made it from the meeting at work to primary school”.
The lack of alternatives is a topos connected to those regarding prize and time. “Some things are hard to do without a car, especially with the kids”. Sometimes, the alternative invoked is rejected as irrelevant or absurd, making it similar to the process that might be at hand in a comparison—you use the alternative that you can dismiss just as you use the comparison that serves your own action.
These three types of topoi—invoking prize, time, and lack of alternatives—appear to be first and foremost practical. “I need, for example, to get to work, drive the kids, meet family and friends”. However, there is often a moral dimension in them in that those who use them refute responsibility by pointing to the system or conditions beyond their control. “The family needed me back home. Did not have to ask for help”. They are not seldom combined with personal circumstances that aim to invoke compassion, like an unwell relative, anxiety, small children and a stressful life situation etcetera. In some instances, the reality is that you cannot control your own actions: “I am not the only one making decisions in our family”.
Some instead talk about convenience and display a self-critical perspective. The great difference between those two groups is that those who state that the convenience was the reason to act are slightly more inclined to consider acting differently in the future, while those who mention lack of alternatives or who put responsibility on someone or something else are more reluctant.Footnote 4
4.5 Other values and social relations
In this group, we find topoi that are explicit about another value being more important than climate or sustainability. This could be your own health or well-being, but also knowledge production or professional development: “I also fly to other places because I need it to feel mentally and physically well”. Or “It temporarily dampens anxiety”. Or it could concern the health of others: “My husband is ill and tired”.
A very common type of topoi in this group regards family, children, and other close relations. These are classical commonplaces for arguments. A paradigmatic example is “I do not compromise on some things. The family is the most important. If I have to choose between taking a train and being with the family, I choose the family”. This is almost impossible to refute and thus a very efficient argument.
Among them, most common in our sample are arguments having to do with children. These, in turn, are mainly of two types. One has to do with practicalities and time, the other what you want your children to experience or what they expect. The first type resembles that of limits of reality, in that it can be about picking up at school with a car. “Bus won’t work because it takes too long time and there is risk that the kids might collapse”. The second can be inferred in legitimizing a trip, certain food, or consumption. “I do not want to be a boring mother”. The argument is that you care for your children which functions as support for your action. At times, this is simply implied: “I am pregnant. Have a two-year old who is demanding”.
Prominent in these topoi, and exemplified above, are thus the demands of social relations. “Either I fly or my daughter will not get to meet her god mother and I will not get to meet my sister”. Inherent is the need to visit, which often requires technology in the form of transport or communication. You want to go away with your family, you want to go home to your family, you want to travel to friends and relatives. Sometimes, these arguments are also imbued with an implicit argument that signals a priority made manifest in the mobility.
The demands of social relations can be expressed as either something positive and existential, or something less wanted and straining. There is a difference between arguing that you are not the only one making decisions in your family and stating that there are some things you do not compromise with. In the first example, agency is somewhere else, and in the second, you yourself decide. In both cases, however, the value of social relations is higher than climate change or sustainability.
4.6 Human condition
Our final group of topoi deals with being human in a more existential and less practical way.
Giving in to lust, desire, or a need is mentioned by a few respondents. Sometimes, it is unproblematized as if it is a human right to give into desires, or that you are entitled: “You have the right to have fun” or “You have to reward yourself”. More often it resembles a confession of weakness. It is expressed either as a simple statement: “I wanted”, “It was so good”, or “I wished”, or more apologetic: “I couldn’t resist”. There could also be a reflective explanatory comment: “Afraid to become ugly. Thus, vanity”, or sometimes with some irony: “I am stupid”.
In this group of topoi, we also find that you have earned something or deserve it through tiring work or stressful everyday life or having gone through illness or depression. One person sees the tranquillity given by going by car to work as an internal environmental issue that outweighs the damage to the external environment. A few argue that it is their right to perform the action. Sometimes giving into lust or desire is even depicted as a right, you are entitled. A few state that they are tormented by their conscience. Some find that their behavior cannot be justified. A few of these respondents advertize their anxiety and seem to see it, or their awareness of the problem, as a mitigating circumstance.
A classic argument that also shows up in our dataset is that it was the last time, it was a coincidence, or it happens so seldom anyway. Often, these claims point to a general direction; you are trying, you have stopped now, you will limit, or you will soon stop. The ambitions are used to call for understanding by pointing to a moral ambition or identity. The inner deliberation and dialogue appeals to an imagined audience, which you need to defend yourself against. “I fly very rarely. You also have to live, not just be a good person”.
Above we have detailed the most common thinking structures and how they are transformed into arguments legitimizing (non)action for individuals who try and make sense of their behavior and maintain a coherent understanding of themselves. We divided the thinking structures into six different categories: husbandry, comparison, why should I, limits of reality, other values, and human condition. From our examples, it is evident that there is a certain overlap between these, even though they are at the same time specific.
Now, we will discuss these thinking structures and analyse them more closely. We will relate them to earlier and specific research but also to overviews that deal with delay, mentioned above. Our theoretical starting point is that there is a correlation between the individual and the societal level of reasoning about climate-change action since people use arguments that resonate with their own context. This context can exist on many levels of analysis. However, we limit our discussion to how individual reasoning might relate to public discourses.
5.1 Husbandry—an economic reasoning with flaws
Economic arguments have been central in the climate discourse as a way of governance and part of commodification (Lövbrand & Stripple, 2011). When and how pricing should be used and whether or not the market can manage climate change is a contentious issue (Norgaard, 2011b). The account thinking, which is so common in our material, resonates well with this framing of climate change, but also connects to a general understanding of economic and transaction balancing that is fundamental to societies (Sörqvist & Langeborg, 2019).Footnote 5
Budget thinking, on the other hand, is part of an idea of a fair share of emissions (Baatz & Voget-Kleschin, 2019). To specify this fair share is difficult and not explicit in any of our responses, but the thinking structure can function well regardless. Budget thinking can be recognized from international emissions trading starting with Kyoto where nations are the agents. Personal emission rights instead emerge as an idea at the turn of the century co-formed with the idea of the individual as emitter (Lövbrand & Stripple, 2011; Paterson & Stripple, 2010). Recently, budget thinking has become a very prominent way of arguing for change where the underlying rational is a calculation of the maximum absolute amount of CO2 equivalents in the atmosphere which has been estimated to reach the Paris target. In this discourse, the global budget can be transformed into a deadline, invoking time as a central dimension of action (Lahn, 2020a, 2020b; Wormbs, 2022; www.globalcarbonproject.org). The big difference here is of course that the budget for the globe is not renewed every year, which the personal emission right is expected to be.
From a philosophical point of view, personal budget thinking is arguably a functional argument from several perspectives. However, how this budget should be calculated on a personal level is hazy among our respondents and result in unclarities. The individual version of it is also seldomly used as a general argument of delay in public discourses even though the thinking is circulating at the level of governance. Account thinking, likewise, has several problems when applied as a thinking structure legitimizing (non)action, most importantly since all consumption emits greenhouse gases (GHG). Thus, this balance does not work if the currency is CO2 emissions, since flying releases a great deal of GHG and, moreover, biking does not remove any GHG from the atmosphere. However, one way that people seem to make the account or balance work is not to view CO2 emissions to the atmosphere as the currency, but instead think of the transactions made in ”good” or ”evil” acts, rather than the materiality of global warming (Hope et al., 2018).
This idea that a less climate-harmful consumption choice is considered a plus (good) rather than a minor minus (evil) is recurrent in our material and described in earlier research and termed the negative footprint illusion (Holmgren et al., 2018; Sörqvist & Langeborg, 2019). We interpret responses that have engagement or effort as currency as part of the same reasoning.
5.2 Comparison—placing yourself in relation to others
The comparison is a classic topos described already in On Rhetoric by Aristotle. Employed in climate reasoning, it is deeply social in its character. It is also a very useful way of arguing since one can always find something which is worse than one’s own contribution. Moreover, it is flexible since it allows for comparison over time and with other sources of emissions. However, also this argument is often flawed in that the understanding that the comparison rests upon might be false or have problematic premises.
For example to use this argument to legitimize consumption, comparing territorial per capita emissions is misleading since a lot of consumption does in fact count in the nation of production rather than the nation of consumption. If a Swede buys a pair of jeans, the emissions from that production falls on the producing country in international statistics, likely India or another low-wage producer. Likewise, general comparison between a Swede’s emissions and for instance coal mining in Germany or foreign tourists flying long-distance to Stockholm, disclose a limited understanding of how the emission trading works internationally and the proportion of the global population that in fact fly. Comparison in this way, the responses suggest, are not fact-based.
To compare with something enormously large which you yourself are not part of, is also common in the public debate in Sweden and forcefully supports (non)action. Part of the argument is moreover that Sweden is such a small country that it in fact does not matter, i.e. tiny me. This argument can be termed the China-argument since China is often invoked in the public discussion in Sweden. Since the individual is even smaller than the nation, the argument has great traction, but is problematic from both an absolute and an ethical point of view (Baatz, 2014). In general, responses in our sample does not use the China argument but refer to comparisons on other levels.
5.3 Why should I—to (dis)place responsibility
Responsibility is a recurrent dimension of the climate discourse and of the governance of climate change mitigation where environmental and climate justice are also included. In comparison with the public discourse, this thinking structure is rarer in our sample. This is likely because those answering our survey to a larger degree subscribe to the idea of individual responsibility in climate change mitigation since the survey is about individual action. Otherwise, they might not even have answered our survey. Therefore, this topos, that somebody else is responsible, would not be expected to any great extent in this sample.
When it does appear, it is formulated differently than what is common in the public discourse where individual action can be put in a dichotomy with collective action, sometimes claiming that the call for individual action is counterproductive. In our responses, there is instead a combination of the individual action and the collective or societal level. For example: “My private actions are not enough”, “I cannot solve the climate crisis by myself. It must happen on a societal level”, and “Everybody needs to take part, you should not be able to escape”.
Rather common is redirecting responsibility by way of the negative role modelling of others, in our material often undefined “others”. This argument is also common in the public discourse and feeds well into social media logic where the spotlight is often on celebrities or climate workers (such as climate scientists or politicians), who should know better. If a member of a green party is flying first class, for example that could serve as an excuse not to change your own behavior.Footnote 6
5.4 Limits of reality—entangled existences
These topoi refer to something that stops you from acting according to your intention, and it is out of your control. It is not your fault. This reasoning appeals to the empathy and recognition of the imagined audience. We are expected to see and understand the forcing circumstances of the respondent and identify with the practical challenges at hand. Against that background we are expected to accept the behavior as legitimate. Many things in this process of appealing are left implicit and implied and demand a contextual understanding. The argument hinges on similar value systems between the respondent and the audience. This is always important but here it is, furthermore, a question of seeking empathy for the argument.
Limits of reality are also brought up in the public discourse on climate change as a legitimate argument against (non)action. It is particularly common in political talk where citizens are promised that they need not sacrifice anything that is part of their decent life.
5.5 Other values—articulating goal conflicts
The thinking structure of other values is arguably congenial with viewing climate change as a wicked problem. The issue on a general level is characterized by multiple goal conflicts, and the same is true on an individual level. This thinking structure resembles limits of reality but is different since it articulates the choice rather than excuses the behavior.
There are goal conflicts in climate change which build on misunderstandings or flawed comparisons. It is quite common in the mediated discourse to place a certain good in opposition to climate-change action. The goal conflict between a welfare state and reducing emissions is a common articulation and very frequent among leading politicians. Just like on the individual level, it is suggested that some things are not negotiable. To some extent, this is a false goal conflict as there are indeed ways to transform society without giving up on everything, even though change will be substantial.
However, on a more concrete and articulated level, these goal conflicts can be real. It is not possible to reach the Paris agreement if the travelling behavior of the affluent part of society does not change drastically (Gössling & Humpe, 2020). Thus, that annual trip to Thailand is not compatible with reducing emissions.
Interestingly enough, these true goal conflicts are seldom the topic of political discussion, and the idea of giving up is hardly ever expressed by members of government or parliament. Politicians instead downplay these kinds of argument, often instead referring to technological development as a solution to the climate crisis (Laestadius, 2021).
5.6 Human condition—one of weakness
A prominent topos in this group deals with weakness and inability to live up to our own standard, something called akrasia in moral philosophy. This topos seems at first sight to be the most selfish way of reasoning. At the same time, it recognizes the self as an agent, which means taking certain responsibility. Another topos that also takes on responsibility is the one we call I confess. The respondents admit their guilt, often in brief answers such as “it is not ok” (aiming at the behavior). Some express a feeling of dissatisfaction with the inability to live according to their knowledge. This is underlying many answers in the whole study, but here it is made explicit.
It is noteworthy that this thinking structure, although ancient and well known to every individual, does not occur in public discourses on climate (non)action. Most likely, this is because it is only privately and not publicly acceptable.
5.7 The relation between public discourses and individual arguments
As the previous sections illustrate, the six types of thinking structures used by individuals in our sample relate differently and to a varying degree to public discourses.Footnote 7 Husbandry and comparison are the most common thinking structures of individuals in our sample, and these are also present in the public discourse, albeit in different contexts. It is noteworthy that there are versions of the individual argument, even though there is great resonance. Few use the China argument for example, which would undercut the intention to do anything. Our sample is intent on action, and thus, arguments of absolute (non)action are not attractive, only those that can help the described failure are used. The issue of responsibility is particularly interesting in this regard. In general, this group is less interested in redirecting responsibility, but engage in arguments that complicate responsibility, acknowledging but not always managing it.
In our sample, it is extremely uncommon to claim that technology is going to offer a solution in time. Only two responses referred to technology which is a very low figure compared to how prominent this thinking structure is in the public discourse and political thinking. In fact, the Paris agreement rests on negative emissions that will have to be geo-engineered.Footnote 8 Neither are compensatory beliefs present in our sample. People in our survey do not argue that they can fly and compensate with planting trees or some other carbon offsetting. This is also interesting, in particular since this line of reasoning has become more and more common in the public discourse, despite its very long history of critique. Furthermore, we cannot find thinking structures that have targets as an argument or refer to hope to legitimize non-action. Whataboutism, in the sense that other things should be done instead, are also absent from our sample.
If we are interested in the relation between the arguments of our sample and those present in the public discourse one option is to look precisely at a mapping of such “discourses of climate delay” (Lamb et al., 2020). Using the typology of Lamb et al., it is clear that even though they have excluded denialism and scepticism, very few of the presented discourses are invoked by the individuals in our sample. This is both noteworthy and important. If, as Lamb et al. argue, we should “develop inoculation strategies that protect the public”, it is key to understand if and how the public discourses resonate with the individual arguments, i.e. if the public in fact needs inoculation and protection.
That some of the delay arguments among people in our sample is absent in the particular demarcation of the public discourses done by Lamb et al. (2020) is telling. It might mean that since our respondents do not use these arguments, they are already inoculated against some of the thinking that is floating around in the public discourse, or that the public discourses of climate delay are richer than suggested by Lamb et al. (2020). We must also consider that a total overlap might not be possible since individual arguments legitimizing (non)action differ in character from public arguments. As showed above, arguments on the human condition are not valid for a company or a politician. It would, however, surface if discourse analysis also included the arts.
We can conclude that arguments legitimizing (non)action used by respondents in our study are not represented in the mapping by Lamb et al. (2020) but still many of them relate to public discourses on climate change, like budget thinking or comparison. If we regard an argument that legitimizes (non)action as a delay argument, this suggests that we need increased methodological and disciplinary heterogeneity to further our understanding of the general issue of delay or knowledge–action gap.
“The public” is a slippery concept, which neither we nor Lamb et al. (2020) have theorized. Our main contribution is to have investigated parts of a group which we believe is rather big, even though our qualitative investigation can say nothing about the representativity of our sample; we need further studies to know more. What we can say is that these people exist, and are perhaps not part of “the public” that needs inoculation. They accept the climate crisis as real and want to live sustainably and are thus an important group to understand because their potential for change is great. A general insight is that people act and think differently, and thus, information and communication will be received and read differently. Moser and Dilling (2011) have argued that there is a “one size fits all” thinking in climate communication building on the notion that people are the same, something they criticize. Our findings support that critique.
6 Concluding remarks
When a self-selected group of Swedes detailed how they reasoned with themselves trying to legitimize a certain climate-harmful (non)action, most of them used arguments that either had to do with a perceived climate account or budget, or they made comparisons with other actors, other actions, or themselves. These arguments have their counterparts in the public discourses on climate change and illustrate a circulation of thinking. Furthermore, arguments about responsibility, the limits of reality, and goal conflicts are frequent in the sample and can be varied in several ways. These arguments are also present in the public discourses on climate change transition. However, there are also arguments used by the respondents in this study that are not visible in the public discourses—like those that appeal to the human condition of weakness, for example. Vice versa, prominent arguments in the public discourses—like the techno-fix argument—are hardly visible in our sample.
Moreover, arguments which are used legitimizing (non)action in our sample are part and parcel of the international governance of climate change, like budget, illustrating that the public discourses on climate change are becoming increasingly complex. What used to be simple arguments pro or con mitigation are now nested and layered proposals which can house delay and action at the same time. This is noteworthy. In a fragmented public sphere, individuals might, furthermore, find themselves at loss in trying to figure out the best way to live. However, the context used by an individual thinking about climate change (non)action is an important source of influence. We are after all first and foremost social beings and rely on the acceptance of our group. Thus, the processes through which public discourses translate into viable arguments in the daily life of citizens are important to understand to improve climate change communication and information.
Meadows (1999) has suggested that achieving sustainability is much about where you intervene in a system, and that a change of paradigm can happen quickly in an individual whereas changing societies is a different issue. A failed intention is the source of reflection and pause. We believe that in democratic societies, connecting the individual with the public is key in transformation. Focus can, therefore, not only be on delay and scepticism but must also include analysing a broader circulation of thinking. Our study is a contribution to this kind of research.
The datasets generated in this project and used for the article are at present with the authors but will be deposited at the finalization of the project. They are available on reasonable request.
We will use the term (non)action in the rest of the paper. Even though much of the literature on this discusses the problem with lack of action in regard to climate transition, abstaining—which is also a kind of non-action—might in fact be more sustainable, depending on the issue. Our interest concerns the (non)action that results in a climate-harmful behavior.
A few respondents used question Q6 to give their legitimization rather than Q9 as we had intended. If they, when arriving at question Q9, referred to an already given legitimization, we manually added those answers to the sample of responses to Q9.
These figures come from the state-owned company that runs many airports in Sweden (swedaiva.se).
One could think that a confession, responsibility, and self-reflection could have resulted in a tendency to want to improve behavior in the future, but we could see no such correlation with the question on future behavior.
Hope et al. (2018) call recycling compensatory green beliefs. We use the term compensatory for negative emissions.
Swedish climate minister Isabella Lövin (green) flying first class in the line of duty was the most circulated pieces of news in Sweden in 2018 according to a survey on climate in Swedish media (Vi-skogen & Retriever, 2019).
We use public discourse both in singular and plural depending on if we want to underline that there are several discernable discourses or if we just want to refer to the public sphere in general.
The public discourse on negative emissions in Sweden is still in its infancy and rather contested among those who engage in talking about it (Christiansen & Carton, 2021).
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The authors would like to thank the work-in-progress seminar at the Rachel Carson Centre, LMU, Munich, for valuable comments on an earlier draft.
Open access funding provided by Royal Institute of Technology. This research was carried out within the project understanding justification of climate-change non-action P18-0402:1 funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond for the advancement of the humanities and social sciences.
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Wormbs, N., Wolrath Söderberg, M. Thinking structures of climate delay: internal deliberations among Swedes with sustainable ambitions. Environ Dev Sustain (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-023-03618-x