Carbon footprints don’t raise environmental commitment

Carbon footprints don’t raise environmental commitmentCalculating ecological footprints is a technique to quantify a person’s impact on the environment. This calculation determines how much land and sea area is required to both provide for consumption and to absorb waste. A similar technique is determining carbon footprint, which calculates the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a person or household.

The purpose of both these techniques is to give people a better grasp of the impact of their behavior and choices on the environment. The intent is that, armed with that such knowledge, people would make better choices. A recent study indicated, however, that such techniques might have the opposite effect, particularly for people who don’t have a strong commitment being environmentally responsible.

According to Santa Clara University psychologist Amara Brook:

Only people who had invested their self-esteem in environmentalism — a strong form of commitment — reacted to negative environmental-footprint feedback by engaging in a pro-environment behavior. Others were less likely to engage in a pro-environmental behavior after negative feedback…These results suggest that environmental-footprint feedback only promotes sustainable behavior for people who are already committed to environmentalism and may discourage sustainable behavior among people who are not already committed to environmentalism.

Such a result really isn’t surprising. When it’s a choice between saving money and saving the environment, the environment will lose. And for people faced with tough economic decisions, the knowledge of ecological or carbon footprint may make them more inclined to dismiss environmental choices as a luxury they cannot afford.

The problem is that the feedback mechanisms for choices are strong from an economic standpoint (spending money upgrading a heating system will take funds out of the grocery budget today) but weak from an environmental basis (connecting driving a gas guzzler that’s paid for with increasing risk of hurricanes a decade from now is impossible).

Smart policy decisions are need to strengthen these feedback mechanisms. Using tools such as rebates and taxes can help put environmental decisions on an economic basis. An example where this is needed is agriculture. According to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, from 1997 to 2002 “over 80 percent of the increase in annual U.S. energy consumption was food related.” The biggest contributor to rising energy use in agriculture is “the use of energy-intensive technologies as a substitute for manual labor.” This result suggests that by taxing labor less and energy more would not only reduce energy use, which would be better for the environment, but would create more jobs as well.

Of course, such policy prescriptions are not straightforward, and the required leadership and political will to implement such policies are sorely lacking. But to expect people to sacrifice their family’s well-being today to avert a potential catastrophe tomorrow is asking too much. Under the current economic conditions, too few people feel that they have the financial capacity to worry about the environment, even if it is in their long-term interest to do so.


This article to me makes the complete wrong conclusion from the evidence presented. It states that knowing one's carbon footprint encourages those already committed to tackling environmental isses to take practical action.  That is a positive.
The study then says that knowing their carbon footprint did not encourage those who do not care about environmental issues to take more action. That is a neutral i.e. it does not make things worse or better.
The study does not say that those people who do not care, take more environmentally damaging actions once they know thier footprint.  Hence the overall effect of measuring carbon footprints is positive.
In my view therefore the premise of the headline and the article itself is wrong.