Event summary by Bridget Stuart (she/her)
This term’s first speaker was Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh, a word-leading environmental psychological who specialises in perceptions and behaviour in climate change, energy, and transport. The talk’s general theme was how we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to galvanise rapid and radical behaviour change to achieve mass adoption of low-carbon lifestyles.
Professor Whitmarsh initially highlighted that 2020 began with the story of the Australian bushfires, making climate change the central hot topic of global discussion. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news headlines and our thoughts ever since.
There are some notable differences between climate change and the global pandemic in terms of how people perceive them. Both existential issues are global, require collective action, demand government intervention and challenge societal stability. They also share some common causes and solutions.
However, climate change has some specific characteristics which makes it more of a ‘wicked’ problem than COVID-19. Climate change is less tangible and less emotive (for UK citizens anyway), there is a weaker social norm for climate action and people feel less able to act. Also, climate solutions are more ambiguous, require political intervention and longer-term behaviour change.
Fortunately, public concern towards climate change remains strong: 79% of UK citizens recently canvassed still believe that the government should orchestrate a green economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Whitmarsh’s research has also investigated how individuals’ behaviours have changed during the pandemic. Citizens have reported a tendency of shifting towards low carbon behaviours such as travelling less (due to working at home), wasting less food, buying less unnecessary items, saving energy, and taking up ‘greener’ hobbies (e.g., gardening, exercise).
Furthermore, due to these behavioural disruptions, last year a 7 – 8% net decrease in global greenhouse gas emissions was seen. Therefore, we are now poised at a unique point in time at which there is mass public awareness on climate issues, and of course an urgency which grows greater every day.
Whitmarsh and her colleagues have thus identified this point in time as a crucial moment to promote individual pro-environmental behaviour change. Their research has shown that the timing of habit change interventions is very important, and that such interventions are more successful if delivered at moments of disruptive change.
If interventions are to be truly successful, they also must be perceived to be fair as this is a strong predictor of policy support. Citizens should also be as engaged as possible, via processes such as citizens’ assemblies and participatory policymaking, as this is vital for creating a political mandate. In addition, climate communication is of the upmost importance for framing messaging in the most effective way for the specific target audience.
Professor Whitmarsh finished on a hopeful note, for if COVID-19 has shown us anything it is that radical lifestyle change and collective action for the common good is possible – under certain circumstances.