Climate Shame

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 11

Our guest today is a science reporter who has spent time in the Arctic. Here she is pictured sipping from glacial waters on the Greenland ice sheet in 2015. At the time, she was reporting on the impact of climate change on mosquito populations.

Photograph courtesy of Kendra Pierre-Louis

Most top carbon-emitting nations, like the United States, are wealthy democracies. Yet climate change is hurting poor countries first and destabilizing their societies — with rising seas, more frequent hurricanes and harsh droughts, leading to mass migration. Science journalist Kendra Pierre-Louis says buying an electric car won’t help much. What we need, she tells Will and Siva, is far more than good individual choices: a wholesale structural shift, international reparations and a healthy dose of shame.

It may feel good to compost, recycle and buy organic foods, but how and what you consume is largely offset but other people’s harmful consumption and, more important, an entire political economy organized around burning fossil fuels and farming intensively. That’s why Pierre-Louis says wealthy countries need to do their part first, while helping smaller countries adapt to a sustainable future. And to make that possible, they’ll need to reshape their social landscapes and get more citizens involved in the political process. Those bigger choices are the much harder ones to make, Pierre-Louis acknowledges. But we’ll have to make them together — or the climate crisis will make them for us.

So where does shame come in? As social scientists know, shame is an important way in which social norms are constituted and communicated. And when it comes to the environment, Pierre-Louis suggests, perhaps we need more shame, not less, so that we take to heart how our current cultural arrangements harm vulnerable populations, and generations yet to come.

About our guest

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a climate reporter. She helps produce the Spotify-original podcast How to Save a Planet. Previously, Pierre-Louis was a science writer for The New York Times and a staff writer for Popular Science. She has contributed to FiveThirtyEight, the Washington Post and Slate, and is the author of Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet (Ig, 2012). Follow Pierre-Louis on Twitter @KendraWrites.

This interview was recorded in March and posted on April 20, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In her book Green Washed, Pierre-Louis dismantles the myth that consumer choices can get us out of a consumption problem.

Read some of her climate reporting for The New York Times, including stories about wildfires, the melting arctic and ways to create a sustainable world.

In a recent piece in Slate, Pierre-Louis defends the effectiveness of shaming people when it comes to covid restrictions.

Curious about what America looked like before the Environmental Protection Agency started cleaning things up? Pierre-Louis curated a collection of archival images of pollution from the 1970s.

She’s also a photographer in her own right. Check out Pierre-Louis’s stunning pictures of the Arctic.

From around the web

President Trump made headlines when his administration rolled back efficiency standards for products such as shower heads and dishwashers. Generating more wastewater not only damages the environment, but makes for bigger utility bills.

The United States recently rejoined the Paris climate agreement — which includes provisions for assisting developing countries in switching to renewable energy.

Pierre-Louis, like climate scientist Michael E. Mann, is skeptical about the role of personal choices in environmental care — but that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant, according to the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, Richard Heede of the Climate Accountability Institute takes a middle-ground approach on this question.

But either way, you might ask: why is there such a lack of motivation among the general public when it comes to solving climate change? Writing for the Harvard Business Review, psychologist Art Markman offers some answers, and suggests what to do about it.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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