Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem - RSA

Climate Change: My Beef with the Collective Action Problem

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  • Behaviour change
  • Climate change
  • Social brain

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact.  While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:

Most of us recognise that climate change is both serious and caused by human activity, but few of us are managing to turn that recognition into behaviour change to reduce our impact. While this is a multi-dimensional issue, I suggest two crucial factors are that:


  • We know that many of the things we do are ‘bad’, but can’t see any way of making constructive changes that don’t require a drastic and unrealistic transformation in how we live

  • We know that most changes won’t make a difference unless other people do the same, so acting seems like a pointless sacrifice


I think that a bit more information might change our minds on both these points, and make it a bit easier to motivate positive behavioural changes.

Revolution vs Evolution

To take just one area where these factors apply, consider what we eat.  It is widely acknowledged that eating meat is probably not the most ethical thing one can do. In addition to animal rights concerns, the production of meat is a major contributor to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions and land degradation.  To summarize:


  • Livestock accounts for almost 1/6 of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions

  • An area of the world’s rainforests 2/3 the size of the UK is destroyed each year to create grazing land

  • Over 2/3 of global agricultural land is used to grow crops for animals in feed lots while a billion people go hungry


With population growth and the rise of new meat-eating middle-classes in developing countries, all of these problems are set to multiply. It is therefore clear that current Western levels of meat consumption are completely unsustainable.

The implication is that we should all be vegetarians.  But personally, though I had long accepted the moral argument, I simply couldn’t envisage changing my behaviour so drastically. The end result was that I didn’t change at all.

But that was until I made an interesting discovery. To paraphrase Orwell, while all animals are equal, it seems some are more equal than others. Red meat (lamb and beef) is by far the biggest offender, requiring many times more land, feed and fossil energy to produce.  This is partly because these animals are such inefficient converters of feed into meat. Cows require about seven kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat, compared to around three kilograms for pork and less than two kilograms for chicken. NPR made this useful infographic to illustrate just how resource and emissions-intensive beef is: 

What It Takes To Make A Quarter-Pound Hamburger

The above doesn’t even include the copious quantities of methane these animals produce - a gas which has 23 times the impact of carbon dioxide. Factoring that in, it becomes even clearer that acting on climate change doesn’t necessarily require a radical change like vegetarianism; just cutting out red meat can make a huge difference.

Or can it? The second part of the dilemma described at the outset concerned the link between this kind of individual action and the kind of collective action that will be required to avert dangerous climate change.

Individual vs Collective Action

Game theory describes a classic example of the collective action problem in the form of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this thought experiment, two prisoners in solitary confinement each inform on the other in order to get a reduced sentence. The end result is that they both get heavy sentences. Its logic applies, to a certain extent, to acting on climate change. No-one wants to be in the situation where they act but others do not, making them both absolutely and relatively worse off, and rendering their sacrifice meaningless.

But that is where the analogy ends. We do not live in solitary confinement. On the contrary, our decisions are influenced more than anything by social values, social norms and social judgements. A big part of our decision not to change our diet is the fact that hardly anyone else is doing it. But if the social landscape can cause negative outcomes, then it can also engender positive ones. If most people were making personal sacrifices for the sake of others, it would be much easier to make (and much more difficult to resist making) those same sacrifices ourselves.

So how do we get from this social landscape to that one? Work by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom on the tragedy of the commons has highlighted the need for institutions, rules and incentives for behaviour. But whilst these structures will be vital to global action, we must not lose sight of the role of individuals. Your decisions do not just change your own tiny contribution to climate change; they also change the social landscape for those around you.

I am lucky that a significant proportion of my peers are genuinely altruistic, and their leadership made it much easier to motivate my own behaviour change in cutting out red meat. And hopefully my decision adds a tiny bit more momentum to that movement, making it a fraction easier for the next person to prioritise the common good over personal interests.

If you do not have such role models around you, you can become one yourself. If just one other person decides to follow your lead then you’ve doubled your impact. If you share two more close friends, suddenly they are each confronted with the fact that two-thirds of their friends are making personal sacrifices, massively altering that social landscape and turning it from an inhibiting to an enabling force for change.

This ripple-effect of individual action can (and will need to) play a major role in overcoming collective action problems like climate change. So if you are put off acting because you don’t want to change your entire life, or are discouraged by the collective action problem, it may be time to reconsider. There is probably something much more manageable you can do, and it might have a bigger impact than you think.

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  • Lioness:- Should you possess a brain in the first place, you might then be able to constructively argue a case against anything posted in the above article- rather than being downright rude. Grow up.

  • It's true there were once a similar number of buffalo as there are today cows.
    They didn't produce as much methane and, as they were not part of a production chain, had no associated Co2 emissions. Similarly, their existence did not
    require destruction of rainforests or the use of scarce productive farmland to feed them.

    But imagining for a moment that they were even vaguely comparable, your argument misses the point entirely.

    I am not claiming that cows caused climate change.
    I am merely pointing out, to those wondering if they can make a difference without having to retreat from industrial society, that yes, they can. Eating less red meat is one such way.

    That there used to be lots of buffalo doesn't change any of that. But thanks for contributing.

  • Thanks for contributing.
    Indeed, there were once a similar number of buffalo as there are today cows. But they produced less methane and, as they were not part of a production chain, there were no associated Co2 emissions (which last longer in the atmosphere). As there were not so many of us humans, their existence also did not require the destruction of rainforests or the use of additional productive farmland for feedlots (or 'locks' if you prefer). Incidentally, if you are against industrial farming, you might want to consider that it would not be possible to meet today's growing demand for meat without it. So either you agree with reducing meat consumption, or you agree with industrial farming. You can't have it both ways I'm afraid.

    Moreover, all of this misses the point. Climate change is a modern phenomenon. I am not saying red meat is the leading cause, only that reducing our consumption would be helpful. That there used to be lots of buffalo doesn't change any of that.

  • I just had a tasty steak. F u.

    By the way, before we killed them all there were at least as many "beef" animals in the wild (*huge* North American buffalo herds, anyone?), now that we removed them from the wild suddenly they are a problem? If you want less gracing animals, kill off the remaining large herds in Africa (Serengeti and the few remaining big open areas). They only feed lions and hyenas. Problem solved. No I'm not *quite* serious, unfortunately idiots writing such articles as above without invoking their brain to think a thousand years back are. No discussion that industrial agriculture sucks, and feed locks should be removed immediately - however, how that translates to the STUPID slogan "no meat" is beyond me.

    Not to mention that for most land on earth getting nutrients for humans through gracing herd animals is the most efficient way! Because agriculture on those lands is really bad or impossible, or possible only with lots of technology and chemistry.

    Get a brain, |d|ot!