This is the reason why people are ignoring climate change

Lorraine Whitmarsh
C Limate is Changing HERO scaled 1

What’s your particular interest in climate change?

The 2018 IPCC climate report showed we only have around a decade to make drastic cuts to emissions if we want to keep global warming to 1.5˚C. This brought into sharp focus the fact that we have to radically change the way we do virtually everything if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, especially regarding social and behavioural change as well as technological change. The new UK Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations isn’t just about changing lifestyles but also changing organisations, policies and the way cities are developed.

There’s been a lot of climate-related media attention recently. Are people taking the issue more seriously or is the awareness at a surface level?

Opinion polls show an unprecedented level of public concern, but the specifics aren’t so clear. Our recent survey results suggested that two thirds of the public are in favour of reducing flying and just over half are in support of reducing meat consumption. These two issues have been really difficult to change in the past, and it remains to be seen whether people will in reality significantly change their behaviour. It’s complicated. Are changes directly linked to climate concerns or are they organically driven and happening anyway – such as fewer young people getting driving licences and owning vehicles? We need to identify key events that disrupt people’s habits and implement climate-conscious approaches that develop alongside these changes.

Self-efficacy can be a psychological barrier, especially in relation to climate change which is a large-scale global problem

What would you say are the barriers as to why someone might not engage in climate change or commit to sustainable behaviours?

We’ve found a range of different barriers. Some of them exist at an individual level and might be a knowledge barrier – for example, people might not know what actions have the biggest impact. Even those who are quite concerned about climate change often don’t know that modifying their diet is one of the most significant changes they can make. They’re surprised that simply eating less meat can make such a difference!

Self-efficacy can be a psychological barrier, especially in relation to climate change which is a large-scale global problem – people feel like they can’t make a tangible difference. However, the biggest barriers are structural and social. There are strong social norms around consumption, such as ‘You have to have an iPhone’. People like to have stuff and it can be a status thing for many, so the norm to consume is really built into our societies.

I’d like to ask about your research on how sustainable lifestyles can be leveraged on key life changes.

We’re in the design phase of some new research to examine big life events – biographical moments of change. For example, becoming an adult and leaving home, having a family, and retirement. In previous research, we’ve looked at the impact of parenthood as one moment of change. It seems that people move in a slightly less environmentally sustainable direction when they have children, which makes sense given they’re preoccupied with their child and are going to choose more convenient options. However, after having children, their attitudes became more concerned about the environment. So, we’re faced with this divergence between what people are thinking and feeling and what they’re actually doing.

Are there other moments of change that are notably disruptive and can be more easily leveraged?

One such event is moving house. If you give people who’ve just moved a behaviour change intervention – such as a free bus pass and information on timetables – it encourages them to use public transport more than those who haven’t moved.

A significant health event can also have a huge impact on people’s behaviour, leading to greener outcomes. A heart attack for example, can shock someone into healthier eating habits – more fruit and veg, less meat and alcohol – and there’s a clear overlap between eating healthily and a low-carbon diet.

Effectively, a whole range of factors can disrupt habits – from extreme weather events to adopting new technologies. The first stage is to examine the impact on people’s environmentally friendly habits and the second is to design interventions that target those moments of change. It also makes sense that the younger you intervene, the more impact you’ll have as habits aren’t as fully formed as in later life – of particular importance in encouraging healthier lifestyles.

Building on potential behaviour change from a significant life event, could this lead to other green behaviours – a ‘spillover’ effect – with particular reference to your earlier large body of research, the CASPI project (Low-carbon Lifestyles and Behavioural Spillover)?

What we seem to be finding is that it isn’t so much a spillover effect, with behaviour change triggering other behaviour change. It’s more that people may start to think about their behaviour and their attitudes towards other ‘green’ issues and speak to others about these issues which, in time, may affect further behaviours. If you can get people to think about why they might be doing something and recognise the links with their other behaviours, you’re more likely to see spillover. For instance, charging for carrier bags didn’t lead to spillover, partly because no one made the effort to join the dots and ask, “Right. Now you’re bringing your own bags, have you thought about buying products with less packaging?” You need to ask the right questions to help people connect their thinking.

Can you find a balance between not framing the climate situation too negatively while getting it into conversation and changing social norms?

We’ve done studies to look at communicating in different ways, and our key finding was that however you frame something, it has to resonate with the particular audience. While some people may care deeply about the planet, a lot don’t: so you have to think about co-benefits. For example, that low-carbon diets are actually healthier, walking and cycling are healthier, turning down your thermostat will save you money.

The benefits go beyond simply helping the planet; they actively and verifiably benefit the individual. We need to balance the somewhat scary risk information with a motivating message: tell people what they can do about it and increase self-efficacy. The more you think that other people are thinking in a particular way, the more it reflects on your own views. If we create a norm that everyone does care, it will hopefully create a ripple effect – helping transform the way we live our lives to achieve a sustainable future.