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  • Victoria Cornelio

The Dangers of Free Riding in the Climate Crisis

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

The climate crisis is no joke.

Climate Reality breaks it down for us in an easy to comprehend list of why the climate crisis is so crucial to our security as humans. The current rate of climate change is human-caused, and we cannot refute this; we know the gases and pollution we emit have accelerated the decay of the environment. Temperatures could go up 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, this could expose 61 million people to droughts and ocean acidification could lead to the death of thousands of marine animals and the disappearance of coral reefs. People living in coastal areas could lose their homes and experience floods due to sea levels rising, putting over 400 million people at risk. Such a rise in temperature could also lead to the spread of existing diseases and make them more contagious, while also creating new hosts for diseases as contact between mammals increases.

This all sounds horrible and scary, no? Apparently not alarming enough for some of us.

Our society continues to free ride and dispute the actuality of the climate crisis. I remember watching the movie 2012 – I was only 11 and terrified – and people took it very seriously. Y2K was a time when the world was supposed to end, and people were freaking out and trying their best to create survival plans.

This made me wonder: Why was this not the reaction to the movie, Don’t Look Up? If you haven’t seen it, Don’t Look Up is a story about two astronomers who try to warn everyone a comet will hit Earth and extinguish humanity, but the underlying message is a commentary on how people are aware of the climate crisis and still choose to ignore it, although the signs and scientific facts are laid bare.

What does it mean to free ride in the climate crisis?

Free riding is understood as benefitting from a collective good without having participated in achieving this good or incurring the costs of getting it. A common example is the use of Wikipedia: the site invests money, time, and people’s expertise to create detailed articles, yet people use the site for free and do not donate to support the platform.

When it comes to the climate crisis, free riding refers to those people and countries that benefit from the collective efforts of others to stop the climate crisis without actively participating in climate actions. Climate actions include protesting, lifestyle changes (i.e. diet changes or energy sources and a transition to low-carbon transportation methods) and advocating for eco-friendly projects and solutions to address the threats of climate change.

Australia, the EU, the United States and Canada are known as free riding countries because they are responsible for most of the damage to our environment, but experience few of the costs of the crisis, such as food insecurity, water scarcity and mass displacement. The Conversation reported that “countries that emit more greenhouse gases are usually less vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change".

The reasons for free riding are numerous, but these are the top three I personally find hardest to address.

1. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias means looking for - or accepting - information that supports our personal biases and beliefs and rejecting any information that may disagree or counter these ideas. In our human history, we have been conditioned to address imminent and close-to-home threats, rather than those that seem to be further away. This leads us to focus on short-term solutions and immediate resolutions, rather than think of the future repercussions of other threats.

We may be inclined to prioritise threats that seem closer to us, such as COVID-19, financial markets crashing, political instability, you name it. By being exposed to articles and information that confirm that these threats are more important and more damaging than the risks posed by climate change, we confirm our bias and focus on addressing these issues instead.

2. The by-stander effect

The by-stander effect refers to the assumption that someone else will take care of it or is already addressing it. This is detrimental to fighting the climate crisis because, in our heads, leaders are already doing something by joining the Paris Agreement, corporations are already working to handle it by introducing new eco-friendly products to the market, and “my neighbours already recycle so I don’t need to”. The more widespread this mindset is, the less people will engage in meaningful climate action.

3. Avoiding non-essential changes

Humans are wired to avoid nonessential changes, and when it comes to the climate crisis, there are a lot of lifestyle changes we need to assume: changing our diet, our transportation methods, and energy usage (how much and where from) are just some of the many things we need to adjust in our lives to tackle the crisis, but these are hard. Sustainable energy resources are expensive, a plant-based diet is not suitable for everyone, and our busy lives mean we need fast commuting options to places – cars to go to work, aeroplanes for travel, trains to visit families, etc.

These factors prevent people from making these changes - changes that are essential if we are to hit our climate targets - and can create a feeling that individual actions will not make a difference.

The dangers of free riding

Free-riding leads to poor international cooperation against the climate crisis. Delayed action results in less time to tackle the crisis as the effects of climate change continue to affect our world. These are the top 5 threats we are facing due to the climate crisis, which may become a reality as soon as 2050.

A return to wearing masks

And not just the one-use surgery masks we use against COVID-19. Advanced, high-tech masks that may be unaffordable for many but are extremely necessary to survive the increased air pollution in cities and urban areas due to fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and waste. Even opening a window will be a risk in certain places without the right equipment.

Extreme heat

And you will want to open a window, because depending on where you are, 40 to 60 degrees Celsius will become normal for you for prolonged periods in the year. The heat will be felt all across the globe and will result in the melting of ice caps which means sea levels rising and loss of biodiversity.

Scarcity of water

This heat will also lead to a scarcity of water like never before, affecting our drinking supply and availability for hygienic and sanitation activities. Scarce water leads to an expensive market where water is regulated and sold to communities, marginalising those who cannot afford it. The UN reports that half the world’s population could be living with water scarcity by as early as 2025.

Mass displacement

Oxfam reported that 20 million people are being displaced yearly due to climate-related incidents and disasters. This mass displacement is predominantly happening in the Global South, where political instability, poor conditions of living and violence are threats people face every day on top of climate change.

Wildfires and natural disasters

The post-apocalyptic looking Earth from Hollywood movies will become a reality as wildfires and natural disasters become normal, and cities as we know them turn into rubble. We have already seen an increase in disasters over the last 20 years, affecting over 4 billion people worldwide.

Just like the characters in Don’t Look Up who decided to ignore the asteroid heading for Earth and continue about their business and lives because “ignorance is bliss”, free-riders choose every day to stand by and let the harms and threats of climate change take their toll on human life.

To battle this, it is important to assess the following questions:

  • What does my individual action mean in the grand scheme of things?

  • How hard is it for me to change?

So, how can we stop free riding?

The biggest thing stopping people from engaging in more sustainable options is how expensive it can be (electric cars vs petrol cars), or how time-consuming it can be (walking somewhere vs driving somewhere). However, little steps that make a big difference include reducing your meat consumption, opting for plant-based milk, carpooling, or taking public transport, and contributing to pressuring governments and the private sector to take their climate pledges seriously and holding them accountable. These are all easy and cost-effective ways of joining the fight.

Individual action is the key that leads to systematic changes. We need people to change their behaviours and fight the climate crisis the best they can because collective action is the only way our individual actions can have an impact that saves us from Doom’s Day.

The more people joining the fight, the bigger the chances are for us to stand a chance against the effects of climate change. It is a group effort that starts with you.

For more resources on this topic, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.

Edited by Michael Anderson

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