Join us in exploring the groundbreaking work of Ilona Magdalena Otto, Professor of Societal Impacts of Climate Change at the University of Graz, Austria. Delve into her research focused on catalysing rapid social changes to tackle climate change. Discover how she addresses the pressing challenges of environmental inequalities, cooperation, and human agency in mitigating climate impacts. Gain insights into her exploration of social tipping points, decarbonisation strategies, and interventions to create climate-resilient communities. Uncover her efforts to motivate individuals, organisations, and policymakers to take transformative actions in the face of the climate crisis.

Which wall does your research break?

Climate change is the most pressing global societal challenge of the 21st century, threatening all aspects of human life and life-supporting natural systems. Responding to the challenges ahead of us requires a fundamental transformation of human behavior and lifestyles, infrastructure, energy supply, agriculture and land use. The main barrier to climate action that I address in my work is the lack of cooperation and solidarity in limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Large inequalities exist in the emissions that different countries, organizations, and individuals are responsible for as well as in the vulnerability to climate change impacts. Many decision-makers do not prioritize climate change and think that there are more urgent problems to deal with. However, each year more and more people suffer heat waves, forest fires, land desertification, and other climate extremes. Sometimes the proposed climate policy solutions and strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change tend to adopt a solely top-down, “one option fits all” technological or incremental change approach. In my work, I investigate social change dynamics and propose systemic solutions that help to rewire our societies, change human resource and energy use patterns, and decrease the pressure on climate and natural systems.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

In 2012-2014 I co-authored two reports in the “Turn Down the Heat” series that were commissioned by the World Bank. In the reports, my colleagues and I assessed the impacts of higher levels of global warming on different world regions and socio-economic sectors. That work made me understand that exceeding global warming above 2 Celsius degrees means the end of the world as we know it in terms of human-nature interactions. This experience motivated me to work on the transition to the net-zero emissions system. In addition, in my early post-doctoral work, I had a chance to work with Elinor Ostrom whose research on governing common pool resources was groundbreaking, and in 2009 she was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Her work on overcoming social dilemmas and achieving cooperation in natural resource management was very inspirational to me and guided me throughout my later career. I was also impressed by Ostrom’s ability to explain complex social phenomena with simple language and terms. She was also a very modest person, easily approachable, and close to students and young researchers. I am still thinking of her as well as other great colleagues with whom I had a chance to work with and I am trying to be a good mentor to my students and early career colleagues.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

I collect empirical evidence on regional case studies as well as citizen and business initiatives that show that promising solutions exist and that citizens have the agency to transform their local environments and institutions. I ask how such solutions and promising initiatives can be scaled up, what kind of governance structures and organizational innovations accelerate behavioral changes, and how can we help change agents, decision-makers, and other citizens to identify their decisions and actions that can substantially contribute not only to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets but more broadly to build ecologically and socially healthy climate-resilient communities. According to my research results, the key interventions that can cause rapid system-wide tipping and reduce greenhouse gas emissions within this decade include removing fossil-fuel subsidies and incentivizing decentralized energy generation, building carbon-neutral cities, pushing fossil fuel divestment, revealing the moral implications of using fossil fuels, strengthening climate education and engagement, and disclosing information about greenhouse gas emissions. Empirical evidence exists on regional case studies, citizen, and business initiatives that show that promising solutions exist and that citizens have the agency to transform their local environments and institutions. However, the climate crisis cannot be solved without addressing examples of global inequality. Strong between and within-country inequalities in the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions exist. According to a United Nations Emission Gap Report, that I co-authored, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population was responsible for more than two times as much carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2015 as the 3 billion people who belong to the poorer half of the world’s population. Accordingly, the wealthiest 10% of the population was responsible for more than half of the emissions during this period. Estimates show that some individuals have a carbon footprint that is more than 1000 higher than the world average. Such high carbon emissions are related to the fact that these individuals maintain multiple large homes, take flights on private jets, take vacations on yachts, and engage in conspicuous consumption. The lifestyles of these individuals are often presented in advertisement campaigns and social media as being socially desirable, which places a great deal of pressure on members of less privileged social groups. The less privileged are encouraged to imitate such lifestyles, but many experience frustration because such lifestyles are out of their reach. Due to their extreme mobility, these wealthy individuals are also becoming increasingly delocalized, travel frequently, spend time in isolated neighborhoods, and pay taxes in third countries. It is also becoming easier for them to protect themselves from negative climate change impacts. In my work, I assess lifestyle greenhouse gas emissions of the world’s most privileged persons and ask what kind of policies and interventions are needed to limit the most polluting activities.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?

I hope my project results contribute to achieving deep social transformations in the next 20 years and help to stabilize the climate, maintain human life-supporting ecosystems, and improve human well-being. I hope my research helps citizens and decision-makers to recognize the agency that they have and will motivate them to become part of solutions to the climate crisis. My research also contributes to defining a set of universal, irreducible and essential material conditions for achieving basic human well-being, along with indicators and quantitative thresholds, which can be operationalized for societies based on local customs and preferences. In the Global South context, the decent living standards discussion focuses on the energy needs for basic well-being. In the Global North, the approach focuses on the affluence of the wealthy and discusses the need for a demand-side transformation. Several authors argue that satisfying human energy needs globally could be achieved using less than half of current energy consumption, however, this would require reducing inequalities and an improved provisioning system that could enable much higher satisfaction of human needs at lower energy needs.

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