It can be frustrating to many, seeing people ambivalent to climate change and how their actions contribute to it. But is ‘climate shaming’ actually effective? 

In recent years, social media has seen an influx of climate shaming: commenters and users drawing attention to the inaction of others, bad habits and unintended consequences. 

Benjamin Newell, a professor of cognitive psychology at UNSW and a climate research psychologist, is concerned climate shaming pushes a model of individual accountability that is unrealistic. 

“It’s this difficult problem of ‘yeah ok, I can reduce the amount that I fly, or reduce the amount of packaging I use, or not drive a car, or take a shorter shower’, or whatever it might be – but for the real systemic shifts, we’re going to need to see governments and corporations and organisations generally take that action,” he told Central News

Climate shaming online often targets individuals for their inability to make personal lifestyle changes. This can range from pressure to go vegetarian and drink dairy-free milk to going zero-waste and not driving a car or flying in a plane. 

Some fossil fuel companies have tried to shift the blame onto individuals, whilst carrying on their own practices which are much more harmful.

Climate activist Rayna Bland recalls strong feelings of personal guilt associated with her eating habits.

“Two years ago, when I had this epiphany, I straight away went vegan, and I was vegan for a few months, and then I was vegetarian, and then I started eating meat again, because I had really low iron,” she said. “So I definitely have lifestyle guilt, because I’m eating meat again. It sucks! There is no perfect option.” 

Newell believes that in many ways, individual climate shaming is a product of corporate lobbying.

“Some fossil fuel companies have tried to kind of shift the blame onto individuals, whilst carrying on their own practices which are much more harmful, simultaneously,” he said. “I think there’s a bit of that going on. I was shocked to hear the fact recently that one of the first carbon footprint calculators was developed by BP, the oil company. And that’s a classic deflection tactic.”

In 2004, British Petroleum, or BP, promoted the first ever ‘Carbon Footprint Calculator‘. The calculator collected information about your habits – how you travel to work/school, eat, holiday – and used this to spit out a damning report of how your life was responsible for the climate crisis. 

This calculator is still online. After calculating the carbon emissions that your road and air travel has caused, BP encourages you to whip out your credit card. A donation to offset your emissions, it claims. 

The term “carbon footprint” is now part of our language and public understanding of climate change. The NSW Stage 6 geography syllabus encourages that students be taught about their “ecological footprint”. 

In this way, BP’s calculator has been a success in introduced an additional level of guilt to the climate conversation, one that is often levelled at individuals, not corporations. 

Beyond merely making individuals feel bad about their habits, Bland believes climate shaming can damage and disenfranchise people from the climate change movement.

“Some of those far left groups can definitely dismiss you, shame you, or disregard you if your politics aren’t far left enough,” she said. “It can be really intimidating.

“I actually got dissuaded from climate justice for a little bit because people kept trying to wrap me up in their politics. I felt really disengaged and unmotivated, because I felt stupid that I couldn’t do everything they could.” 

In particular, this shaming can target individuals who may not have the finances or personal autonomy to make changes, noting the most popular social media platforms are largely used by young people, with two in five TikTok users aged under 24 and two thirds under 30.

If you emphasise the collective, you can aggregate the actions of the few, and that is more influential.

“It often comes down to economic restraints. All this advertising makes people think – to save the planet I have to go out and buy these items so I can be green,” Bland said. “Which is not necessarily true.

Newell said rather than shaming people for individual actions, activists should be encouraged aggregation across individuals

“[It’s] also getting that balance between making your voice heard to the people that can make genuine change at a systematic level, versus those individuals,” he said.

“That’s not to say that individuals themselves shouldn’t also try and make the changes or change their consumer habits in a way that will convince companies that that’s the way they need to move.

“But if you do emphasise the collective, you can aggregate the actions of the few, and that is more influential.” 

Main graphic created on Canva.

World News Day