Behavior is Contagious

High-impact, individual climate actions can help create a tidal wave of change, says scientist Kimberly Nicholas.

Those who truly appreciate and cherish our world face an interesting predicament. To love the planet is to want to see the planet. To see the planet — by traditional means at least — is to destroy the planet. How can one engage with the bounty of landscapes and latitudes, of diverse people and cultures that is the Earth, without also causing undue harm?

Photo by Simon Charles Florian Rose.
Nicholas has spent her career attempting to understand how humanity can reasonably avert a climate disaster. Photo by Simon Charles Florian Rose.

This is a question that Dr. Kimberly Nicholas, climate scientist, speaker, and author of Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World, as well as the newsletter We Can Fix It, has personally and professionally grappled with. Nicholas, who grew up in California and is currently a climate and sustainability scientist at Sweden’s Lund University, has spent her career attempting to understand how humanity can reasonably avert climate disaster and has built an international following by conveying this message with actionable steps and considerable heart. She says, for her, climate change has morphed from something she simply studies to the way she sees the world and experiences her life. Her one key message for all of us: Individual actions do matter! The focus though, should be on “high-impact” actions like cutting back on our most carbon-intensive activities — flying, driving, and eating meat. Nicholas believes that by investing in such actions, and using our influence as citizens, consumers, and investors, each of us can also help build the socio-cultural momentum required to push through the larger systemic changes we so urgently need to tackle the climate crisis.

In Under the Sky We Make Nicholas discussed the idea of “love miles,” a concept first introduced by journalist George Monbiot. Love miles are a way to discern between trips that are necessary for social and emotional wellbeing, and trips that are merely for business or pleasure. In considering how people can best navigate the predicament of wanting to treasure the world they love without harming it, love miles were a fascinating jump off point for our conversation.

In your book, you note that one roundtrip transatlantic flight uses eight months of an individual’s annual carbon budget (if we were to slow climate change to acceptable levels by 2030). That was my yikes! moment. Like many others, travel has been a seminal experience for me and the idea of remaining grounded has been hard to swallow. You use “love miles” as a way to determine which trips are essential and which are not. What about those trips that don’t fall into a simple category? How can we truly suss out what trips are worthy of love miles?

It’s tricky. If you’re a frequent flier, whatever you can do to cut your flying makes a huge difference for the climate. Most people on Earth, and even most people in the US, do not fly. Many people don’t take flying for granted. But for the small group of us who do, it’s really important to find ways to reduce our flying as much as possible.

Self-reflection is a really good beginning. To say: What traveling am I doing? Where have I really made an essential contribution and grown as a person and learned something for myself that I can’t imagine doing without, and what wasn’t so critical? Many frequent fliers acknowledged or admitted that they themselves didn’t find their trips very important. I think that’s a helpful first step.

What I personally did was choose to follow a limit. I decided to stop flying within Europe. For me, it was really helpful to have chosen a rule to follow rather than to constantly rethink every possible decision and weigh pros and cons and suffer from analysis paralysis. So, for some people that might look like: I’m going to cut my flying in half from where it was in terms of number of trips or distance. Or, I’m going to combine trips, so that I take half as many trips and stay longer for combined purposes. You might travel for work and also see friends or family along the way and fly less overall as a result. Or you could decide to stop flying for a certain purpose, like vacation, and find holidays closer to home. The important thing is to start with something that works for you and where you’re at.

Europe has a pretty extensive railway network and thus cutting down on intercontinental flights is fairly doable. What advice would you give to Americans hoping to fly less?

It’s true that it’s easier to get around by train and public transport in Europe than in the US.

That is a choice. That’s not a natural law. It’s because Europe has invested in infrastructure that the US has not. National infrastructure is a big question, but a lot of infrastructure starts locally. For people who want to have the easier, cheaper, more available alternatives it’s really important to be working towards those and supporting the ones that exist in your community. That can look like bike lanes or safe streets for kids walking to school, or it can be the local bus and train. It’s both support and use of the infrastructure that does exist and pushing for better alternatives at the political level.

It is feasible to travel the US by rail. For my wedding trip we went through 16 US states and had about a dozen parties hosted by friends between Canada and the US, and we were traveling by train between all of those locations and a couple times by bus. It does require more planning and more time, but I look back really fondly on that journey itself. The extra time that we spent traveling was a really wonderful and beautiful part of the whole trip.

As a parent with two kids, a long journey by train can’t always be squeezed into a long weekend. Any advice for those of us hemmed in by specific conditions who still want to engage in stimulating travel experiences?

One idea is finding the sorts of things that don’t require structural changes. For example, finding and creating stimulating travel experiences closer to home. That might look like engaging with a local community to learn a new language, or to experience a new food culture. It might be being a tourist in your own neighborhood. There’s often so much richness in our own backyards that may not have been fully appreciated. Having a beginner’s mind, an openness to exploration, can be really stimulating.

Americans are really time pressed. To the extent that it’s possible, structuring lives to be less pressured, to have kids in fewer activities, to not commit to driving a kid across town an hour away every Saturday, can be helpful. Looking for opportunity, enrichment, and social connection closer to home through less formally organized and rigidly structured offerings is a really important part of making more time.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to control their work environment, but some offices and some employers are starting to give flex time. There’s a program called Climate Perks in the UK which asks employers to give employees more days of vacation if they travel by train so it doesn’t eat away at their vacation time. So I think there are options there.

You mention that 1 percent of the world population accounts for 50 percent of pollution from flights and that one study found that frequent flyers considered only 58 percent of their trips “important” or “very important.” Those are discouraging statistics and can make it feel like our own actions are insignificant when compared to the actions of the most frequent flyers. How can we overcome analysis paralysis in this context?

That was something I actually found encouraging. Because I think that reflection can cause substantial behavior change. Thinking about aligning our actions and values is really powerful. There are many steps to it, but you can’t start those steps until you’ve at least thought about it and had some realization. I don’t believe that study followed up on behavior change, but I would expect that people who reflected on the purpose and necessity and value of their travel and reported that they didn’t find it valuable would travel less.

I think that people have the potential to change. We have some studies now that have followed up with people who have stopped flying or who have committed to flying substantially less and tried to understand their motivations and behavior. One of the main influences is knowing someone else who has flown less. So we know that behavior is contagious, and our actions do make a difference.

There was a notable downtick in travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, followed by a notable uptick now that people are returning to a semblance of normalcy. Is there any cause for optimism as it relates to the travel industry?

People have sometimes called this revenge travel. To me, it says that involuntary impositions where people don’t feel that they’ve made a choice are more likely to incur backlash. We shouldn’t be surprised by that because nothing has changed structurally. It’s still incredibly cheap to fly relative to the true climate cost. There are still a number of subsidies for the airline industry, even more so than other fossil-based industries, that artificially distort the prices to make them too low.

There’s still a cultural gap, especially in the US, where there’s much less recognition of the climate harm from flying. Without making the climate harm from flying more explicit, and without having structural changes in place to make flight pay its true climate cost, and to have viable and attractive alternatives, and to valorize staying grounded and flying less and even traveling less and more meaningfully, we won’t see a big shift.

What might you say to those who might criticize the concept of love miles as a mere band-aid when an emergency procedure is needed?

I think it’s fair to criticize the concept of love miles. We are in a climate emergency, the impacts are really dire and severe already, and time is really short to make some drastic changes and urgent reductions to avoid catastrophic climate change. It’s fair to be critical of non-emergency travel. Most people would make an exception if there’s a life at stake, but when that’s not the case, I’m not claiming that it’s entirely justifiable to fly. I think that it’s part of a cultural shift that needs to happen in reframing the necessity or the value of flying and seeing the carbon budget as incredibly precious and seeing how much of that budget is taken up by flying.

Can the concept of “love miles” translate to any other aspects of our lives? I’m thinking of my own efforts to reduce meat consumption and my love of my mom’s goulash. How do we prioritize the planet while still retaining connections to the (climate-damaging) things we love most?

Your love of your mom’s goulash would be a case where I would prioritize allocating your animal product budget to something that is really near and dear to you. “Love bites,” maybe? There is room in a healthy and sustainable diet to include some animal products. The diet that’s recommended in the EAT-Lancet report has about 80 percent less meat products than the average American currently consumes. The US is about six times over the limit for red meat consumption, but there is room in a healthy and sustainable diet to have a couple of eggs, a couple servings of fish and chicken per week, a couple of beef burgers per month, as well as one serving of dairy per day. Using those budgets wisely, like your love bites of your mom’s goulash, makes a lot of sense.

You recently wrote that what keeps you up all night is not the climate deniers but rather the “large majority of people who are climate concerned, but passive.” Could you elaborate on that?

I really focus on trying to activate this group, which is the majority of Americans who are concerned or alarmed about climate change: They know what’s happening — It’s us, it’s bad, we’re sure — but they may not know what to do about it, or they feel overwhelmed and unsure of what actions of theirs really make a difference. That group is big enough to make the changes we need to stabilize the climate. But not enough of them are doing what’s needed to make that happen. What I really worry about is that we might come so close to doing all that we need to, which is amazing, but we aren’t yet at the scale that we need to be. That worries me much more than the very small group, which is less than 10 percent of Americans, who are dismissive of climate change, and who don’t understand or who deny the reality of the emergency situation that we’re in. I think it’s much more important to focus on activating the group who actually wants to help.

As a climate scientist you are fully aware of the enormity of the climate crisis. In the face of that knowledge, what gives you hope and keeps you going?

Facts don’t speak for themselves. Facts don’t translate into policies and behavior change automatically. Humans have to do that. A lot of what motivates humans is our feelings. We can use those feelings as a compass to help guide us to what we really care about and value and love and want to protect and work towards. It’s really important to sustain our energy and motivation.

Hope actually doesn’t play a role in keeping me going. I feel like hope is kind of a false flag, like a bit of a red herring in a lot of climate discussions. Hopelessness is bad. But that means that what’s actually bad is feeling like what you do doesn’t matter and doesn’t make a difference, and I don’t feel like that. I’m fully aware that I’m just one person and we know the change that one can personally make is very, very, very small, especially in comparison with the enormity of the problem. But I’m also aware that it’s so powerful to be one small drop in this tidal wave of change. I am needed. I have a role to play. And that’s really true for everyone.

What we have to contribute or to offer looks different for all of us. But we are all so necessary and important at this moment. It’s the sense of legacy that we’re creating now, not just for our time on Earth, but for the entirety of the human project as we know it. We have such an important role in setting the stage for what will be possible, what kinds of lives we can live in our lifetimes, and certainly those who follow. That is what keeps me going — that and being surrounded by really wonderful people who keep me energized and appreciative.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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