Tackling climate change requires profound societal transformation

  • Climate and sustainability

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE, Director of the Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations (CAST), University of Bath 

Here Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh demonstrates that we will need to make profound changes in our society and in our behaviour if we are to successfully address the challenges we all face in relation to climate and sustainability. The piece makes it clear that technology alone won’t be enough to tackle the climate crisis. This is a social and behavioural problem and insights from the social sciences are going to absolutely crucial as we try to find our way through the issues we face.

The latest IPCC report makes clear that we are not on track to tackling climate change, and that profound societal change is required to meet our climate as well as other sustainability goals. Indeed, for the first time, IPCC Working Group III (which deals with climate change mitigation) has had a dedicated chapter on consumption and more social scientists have contributed to the latest assessment report than ever before. This is the clearest evidence yet that technology alone is insufficient to tackle the climate crisis. The progress we have made so far to cut emissions has largely been down to shifting energy supply towards lower carbon energy resources including renewables. What’s now needed is to radically reduce demand – and this involves changes to the ways we live, as well as technological change. In fact, in the UK, we need to reduce our average carbon footprint from 8.5 tonnes CO2e to 2.5t by 2030 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5oC. That’s an enormous change to lifestyles within the next 7 or so years.

Cutting demand through social and behavioural change can more rapidly and often more cost-effectively cut emissions than developing new technologies, the IPCC report shows. In fact, the report notes that such measures could reduce global emissions from end-use sectors by up to 70%. This is consistent with evidence from the UK Committee on Climate Change – most of the measures needed to reach our net zero target will require behaviour change including reducing consumption of high-carbon goods and services. Media coverage across the political spectrum and widespread public opinion echo these messages.

Indeed, the public are well aware of the urgency and seriousness of climate change. Last year we reached an all-time high for public concern about climate change85% saying they are worried. Interestingly, climate concern was undented by COVID. Our research suggests climate change is now a core and fairly stable concern for most people. Moreover, people feel they should be playing a role in a net zero transition. When we polled the UK public in April 2021, we found 73% agreed that “If individuals like me do not act now to combat climate change, we will be failing future generations”.

However, the scale of behaviour change is not yet recognised by the public – most people think recycling, reducing food waste and saving some energy will be enough. It won’t. We need to reduce how much we drive and fly, cut our meat and dairy consumption, install insulation and heat pumps, change our shopping habits to buy more durable goods and to share and repair more – as well as buying low-carbon technologies and products.

To do this, we need to remove the barriers to behaviour change – make it easier, cheaper, more normal to adopt lower carbon products and services. Information alone won’t be enough – while we do need to inform public decision-making about the most effective choices they can make, we critically need economic and regulatory measures to change the system, shift the incentives and enable people to change. This is not yet happening; there remains a disappointing reliance on technofix solutions in UK climate policy.

Crucially, we need to bring people with us – we know fairness is critical to public acceptance of climate change and this includes distributing costs and benefits fairly – not leaving behind low-income households and those working in high-emission sectors – and giving people a say in decision-making. This was clear from the Climate Assembly UK – the first UK citizen’s assembly on climate change which brought together 108 members of the UK public in 2020 for six weekends to learn about and deliberate on net zero policies – in which fairness was consistently emphasised as being important for public acceptance of net zero policies. Similarly, our latest research shows widespread support for net zero policies – but particularly those that are fairest – for example, frequent flyer levies and reflecting environmental costs in products. Blanket taxes, like red meat taxes, are less popular – not least because they penalise those worst off. Spelling out the costs does reduce support, but equally we know highlighting policy benefits increases support.

Climate Assembly UK also showed the public support policies which bring wider benefits – to health, communities, jobs, and biodiversity – and the good news is that most climate change mitigation policies do achieve those wider goals. Contrary to assumptions underpinning UK climate policy, the IPCC report shows that social and behavioural change will not threaten people’s quality of life – on the contrary, it will actually enhance it because climate action tends to improve health, wellbeing, equality, prosperity and biodiversity. This is something we have also found – people from a range of cultures who have greener lifestyles tend to have higher wellbeing. We also know that cities and local authorities are increasingly recognising this by taking a ‘co-benefits’ approach in their climate action planning and decision making – allowing them to tackle multiple priorities alongside climate action. Governments now need to seize these opportunities to improve people’s wellbeing while taking bold climate action.

Indeed, government leadership is key to transformative decarbonisation; clear, consistent and long-term policy – that enables action by businesses and the public – is needed to achieve rapid and wide-ranging emission cuts. Yet, so far, the public see the UK government as failing to take a lead on climate change. Despite the UK public wanting to play their part in achieving net zero, we lack the ​​structural and cultural conditions needed to support widespread changes in lifestyles. The places we live remain dominated by cars, with public transport too often expensive or unreliable. We can learn from COVID-19 here, where the Government’s actions enabled rapid transformative changes to the ways that we live and work, and people felt that their personal actions made a difference.

People are at the heart of tackling climate change. As recognised in the IPCC’s report, action by governments, businesses, communities and by the public is critical to achieve a sustainable, net zero society. There are various roles people play in pushing for action on climate change – as employees, employers, citizens, consumers, parents, and peers. Our work in CAST supports the recommendations of the IPCC, and builds on these by offering insights on how to deliver change to cut emissions effectively, rapidly and fairly. We will continue to work with private, public, and third-sector partners and communities to develop and deliver solutions to the climate crisis.

Photo Credit: hello-i’m-nik on Unsplash

About the author

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh is based at the University of Bath and is an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport. She is Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Her research projects have included studies of energy efficiency behaviours, waste reduction and carrier bag reuse, perceptions of smart technologies and electric vehicles, low-carbon lifestyles, and responses to climate change.  She is also a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Working Group II; and regularly advises governmental and other organisations on low-carbon behaviour change and climate change communication.