Can shaming help mitigate the climate crisis? Experts offer mixed views

Shaming celebrities for their private jets is not enough, experts say.

August 21, 2022, 10:01 AM

As the climate crisis has worsened, experts have put forth numerous solutions to curb greenhouse gas emissions and stop rising temperatures. Could shaming be one of them?

Recently, celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift and Drake have been getting flack on social media for how often they fly their private jets.

But criticism of these individuals for their jet use is not enough, some say. When global transportation came to a halt in 2020, total emissions of carbon dioxide dropped 7%, the reduction needed per year to achieve the Paris Agreement's climate goals by 2030 -- keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels and ideally limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.

Climate scientists have long contended that highlighting individual actions, rather than those of wider industries that contribute to the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, is not the way to effectively mitigate climate change.

However, collective action across large scales can make a difference, experts say.

"You start influencing family members, coworkers and neighbors, and collectively that drives markets -- that sets the social norms that tell us what society approves of," Lise Van Susteren, a general and forensic psychiatrist who researched how climate change has affected the psychological health of young people, told ABC News.

The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed this month, is one example of a collective action geared towards climate change. The bill includes billions of dollars in consumer incentives to buy energy efficient vehicles and appliances, as well as tax credits and other incentives for cleaner energy production.

How can people be influenced to address the climate crisis? Here is what other experts had to say:

People default to focusing on individual action

With the uptick in extreme weather events, such as devastating wildfires, deadly flooding and more intense hurricanes, people are beginning to feel more anxious, Elisa Aaltola, a senior researcher in philosophy at the University of Turku in Finland, who authored a study last year on whether climate shame could be used as a method of moral cultivation, told ABC News.

Naturally, that anxiety will force people to seek responsibility and locate the people who should change their actions, she said.

PHOTO: Muddy water floods a swimming area as a nearby river overflowed amid torrential rain, in Chuncheon in Seoul, Aug, 10, 2022.
Muddy water floods a swimming area as a nearby river overflowed amid torrential rain, in Chuncheon in Seoul, Aug, 10, 2022.
Yonhap/EPA via Shutterstock

Because the issues surrounding climate change are so complex, especially the doom and gloom that accompanies an uncertain future, people tend to gravitate toward individual actions rather than the necessary systemic change, Renee Lertzman, the founder of climate activism platform Project InsideOut, told ABC News.

People concerned about the climate crisis should remember that these systems already in place were set up for them and they are not to blame, Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist at nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, told ABC News.

Empathy can be a constructive solution

For some people, depending on their temperament, current behaviors and general attitude toward the world, shaming might work effectively, Van Susteran said.

"When you are publicly shamed, what you are doing is you are confronting the fear that you will be ostracized," she said.

But Lertzman believes that while shame can be productive in the short-term, it is difficult to base any kind of meaningful change and transformation on shame because it'll eventually cause burnout.

"It takes us into an incredibly unproductive spiral," which will then cause people on the receiving end to shut down and tune out, Lertzman said.

Beyond the shaming is the necessity for a space for people to be attuned and have empathy for other people's lived experiences and identities.

“We need to openly and explicitly acknowledge the experience that people may be having -- of vulnerability, of feeling destabilized, of feeling fear of feeling left out of the conversation, of feeling aggrieved, of feeling disenfranchised," Lertzman said.

Who the shaming is directed at matters

In parts of Europe, the term "flight shame" was coined several years ago to shame ordinary people who are perceived to fly too much -- or even just fly at all, Aaltola said.

The public discord has focused more and more on personal embarrassment regarding practices that could be contributing to the climate crisis, she said.

PHOTO: People block the tracks during a demonstration as part of the System Change Camp in the harbor in Hamburg, Aug. 13, 2022.
People block the tracks during a demonstration as part of the System Change Camp in the harbor in Hamburg, Aug. 13, 2022.
Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

The criticism hurled at the A-listers is a result of the connection made linking the 1% and the climate crisis, Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University, told ABC News. Flying on a private jet used to be a private, and now images of the conspicuous consumption of private jets are being plastered across social platforms, she said.

Focusing on those who have wealth and political power, as well as the corporations causing the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, can be effective, some experts say.

Celebrities, with their millions of followers, are in a unique position to serve as a catalyst for the climate movement, Christy Denckla, an assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard University, told ABC News.

Recent targets of criticism have offered various defenses for their use of private jets.

Drake defended a series of short flights on his jet, writing on Instagram that the plane was just being moved for storage during those flights. "This is just them moving planes to whatever airport they are being stored at for anyone who was interested in the logistics … nobody takes that flight," he wrote.

A spokesperson for Taylor Swift recently told Rolling Stone in response to the criticism, "Taylor’s jet is loaned out regularly to other individuals. To attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect."

Kylie Jenner did not offer a public response after being criticized for posing in front of two jets with boyfriend Travis Scott.

ABC News could not immediately reach a representative for Jenner for comment.

But shaming works best when we don't go and shame every person who does something that we deemed to be morally inadvisable," Aaltola said.

Shame without solutions is fruitless

Discussions on celebrity extravagance should be leveraged as a conversation starter, experts say. The conversation should be on the impact of air travel, how to shift lifestyle changes to support a healthier environment and the complex dilemmas that would cause a wealthier individual to need to fly private.

PHOTO: Flames burn to the Klamath River during the McKinney Fire in the Klamath National Forest northwest of Yreka, Calif., July 31, 2022.
Flames burn to the Klamath River during the McKinney Fire in the Klamath National Forest northwest of Yreka, Calif., July 31, 2022.
David Mcnew/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

The focus shouldn't be on making the target feel terrible as a person but rather emphasizing what can be learned from the emotion -- the "moral constructiveness" of shame, Aaltola said.

There's a difference between shaming, leading by example and advocacy, Van Susteran said. Nuanced and sophisticated approaches that encourage unity, rather than shame, which provokes a primitive sense of survival, may be a better approach, she added.

Awareness of climate action psychology is needed

The cycle of transforming shame and guilt around the climate crisis to positivity can feel like "a bit of a swirl," Lertzman said.

Massive change is often disruptive and unsettling, and people will need to learn how to navigate through the eventual lifestyle alterations needed to curb emissions, experts say.

One vital aspect of shame is the role it plays in defining humanity and how society wants to advance into the future, Aaltola said, adding that Western and industrialized nations tend to avoid the feeling of shame rather than viewing it as an educational tool.

"Shame comes with this benefit," she said. "It can make us rethink who we are in relation to the rest of nature."