'Walking the Walk' Matters When It Comes to Climate Activism

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Greta on strike in Katowice, Poland

The public wants to see activists practicing what they preach.

The secret to Greta Thunberg's success lies in her ascetic lifestyle. According to new research, the fact that Thunberg eats no animal products and does not travel by airplane has played a major role in catapulting her to fame as a climate activist. When people see that she is living according to her own message of needing to curb greenhouse gas emissions, they take her more seriously.

This logical conclusion, reached in a study titled "Climate change communicators' carbon footprints affect their audience's policy support" and published earlier this year in the journal Climate Change, applies to any climate 'messenger'. When scientists, journalists, companies, and individuals encourage others to simplify their lifestyles for the sake of the planet, the public looks to see how they themselves live, and then only takes them as seriously as the behavioral changes they model.

Furthermore, the study authors found that a messenger's credibility is not the only thing that can be undermined by a lack of good personal examples; so is the public's interest in policies for which the messenger advocates. In other words, as Forbes says, "The public is more likely to support systemic action if those advocating it have a low carbon footprint."

One of the study authors, Elke Weber, explained in an interview with Princeton University:

"We have found that larger institutions, like the UN, play a moral coordinating role, similar to organizations at national, subnational, and corporate levels. But there is no question that mass movements by sympathetic agents, for example our sincere and scared children, focus our collective attention. The question is whether they can hold that attention when vested interests and other competing goals and objectives intervene."

This takes us back to Greta Thunberg, who has captured global attention and respect for her astonishing and unwavering commitment to a low-carbon lifestyle, while inspiring countless others to take action. From Forbes:

"[This research] explains why Greta Thunberg has succeeded more than others at communicating the climate crisis and galvanizing social action. Thunberg has insisted on individual change — and modeled it — while advocating systemic change."