Mixing Diet Advice and Climate Advocacy?
Projecting Personal Values Can Backfire
There are many reasons why we should think carefully about our diets and the balance of meat we consume, climate change being among them. But research suggests that when celebrities like James Cameron make headlines by advocating veganism as a solution to climate change, these well intentioned statements may backfire with broader audiences.
I very much enjoyed the first episode of the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously and I have been rooting for the series' success. In part, the cable network production directly speaks to my own outlook as someone who is deeply concerned by climate change and who leans more liberal than centrist. But as a social scientist studying the climate debate for the past decade, I also believe that Ted Nordhaus' and Michael Shellenberger's recent New York Times op-ed and subsequent essays have raised a number of questions that are well worth considering, especially by fans of the series.
I’ve highlighted those questions at Google + and plan to return to them after I have a chance to reflect on the rest of the Living Dangerously episodes.
Yet in the meantime, I wanted to flag a recent instance where in promoting the series, executive producer James Cameron may be conveying the type of cultural cues that speak to only a narrow slice of the public, while potentially turning off broader segments of Americans who are otherwise inclined to be concerned about climate change
In an interview with the viral web site Reddit, Cameron was asked the best thing that an individual can do to fight climate change. “Stop eating animals,” was his reply. As he elaborated:
This may surprise you, because it surprised me when I found out, but the single biggest thing that an individual can do to combat climate change is to stop eating animals…Because of the huge, huge carbon footprint of animal agriculture. I was shocked to find out that animal agriculture directly or indirectly accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions, compared to all transportation – every ship, car, truck, plane on the planet only accounts for 13%. Less than animal agriculture. So most people think that buying a Prius is the answer, and it’s certainly not wrong, but it’s not the biggest agent of climate change.
In past comments, Cameron says he was converted to veganism by the documentary Forks Over Knives and he has argued that you can’t be an environmentalist if you don’t eat a plant-based diet.
I view Cameron's comments as sincere and well-intentioned. In part, they are as Roger Pielke Jr has aptly argued an example of climate change being "a bit like a policy inkblot on which people map onto the issue their hopes and values associated with their vision for what a better world would look like."
All of us working on climate change are likely guilty of this to a degree, but there is a bigger perceptual problem with Cameron’s advocacy of veganism in promoting the Showtime series, one that could potentially backfire with intended audiences.
In a 2010 co-authored study with Ed Maibach and colleagues our interview results showed that broad segments of Americans –ranging from the Alarmed to the Dismissive in their views about climate change – found information about the problem useful and compelling when it was framed in terms of mitigation related actions that offered specific benefits to public health.
But the one argument that members of all segments reacted to relatively negatively was the suggestion that they change their eating habits from meat to more fruits and vegetables. *As far as I am aware, our study is the only to date that directly evaluates how different publics respond to advice to shift their diets in the face of climate change, indicating that we need to do more research on this line of argumentation before deploying prominently in public engagement campaigns.
Until then, when celebrities like James Cameron make headlines by advocating their own personal embrace of veganism, they would be wise to reflect on how such recommendations are likely to be received and re-interpreted by the public.
Below is the key section from the results section of our study and you can read the full open-access version here. *We designed the study believing that the diet advice along with the other health co-benefits highlighted would be persuasive. In the figures linked below, you can see that although the other emphasized health co-benefits resulted in a strong positive response and train of thought with people finding the information useful and compelling, the advice on diet (sentence labeled B4) disrupted this positive train of thought, with reactions moving in the negative direction among all groups, but most prominently among those on the more doubtful part of the climate change perception continuum.
Also worthy of note, as Figures 4 and 5 indicate, is that all six segments reacted positively to the following statements focusing on specific mitigation-related policy actions that lead to human health benefits:
"Taking actions to limit global warming - by making our energy sources cleaner and our cars and appliances more efficient, by making our cities and towns friendlier to trains, buses, and bikers and walkers, and by improving the quality and safety of our food - will improve the health of almost every American."
"Cleaner energy sources and more efficient use of energy will lead to healthier air for children and adults to breathe."
"Improving the design of our cities and towns in ways that make it easier to get around on foot, by bike and on mass transit will reduce the number of cars and help people become more physically active, lose weight."
Conversely, respondents in all segments responded less positively to the statement:
"Increasing our consumption of fruits and vegetables, and reducing our intake of meat - especially beef - will help people maintain a healthy weight, will help prevent heart disease and cancer, and will play an important role in limiting global warming."
* Post updated with more details on study design and results in response to query about diet advice "backfiring" or resulting in more negative/less positive reactions to an argument intended to be persuasive.
About Matthew Nisbet
Matthew C. Nisbet is Associate Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. You can read about his research and various studies at the Climate Shift Project and at Google Scholar, or find out more about his courses, including those on Environmental Politics, Communication, and Advocacy; and Health, Debates, Communication, and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @MCNisbet and Google +.