Ask the Expert: Encouraging public engagement in climate change and sustainable behaviours

In this installment of our Ask the Expert event series, SMF was pleased to host Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh on the topic of public engagement on climate change.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh started off by introducing us to her research centre, the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), headquartered at Cardiff University, where Prof Whitmarsh teaches environmental psychology.

CAST seeks to answer the question ‘how can we as a society live differently, and better, to achieve systemic, deep and rapid emission reductions?’ The focus is on exploring the role played by people’s values in their decision-making process, as well as ‘co-benefits’ from taking actions. Once identified, these can be explored and leveraged in order to bring about the changes in society necessary to meet climate change targets.

This intersection between environment and psychology is a very important area of research. Analysis from the Committee on Climate Change shows that low-carbon technologies or fuels alone only account for 38% of the emissions that need to be reduced, with societal or behavioural shifts to some degree accounting for the remaining 62%.

Source: Committee for Climate Change 2019

Is the public ready to face up to the challenges ahead? According to polling conducted by CAST, people seem to be in broad agreement when asked if we need to limit air travel and reduce meat consumption in order to combat climate change effectively. Prof Whitmarsh did point out that one’s claimed attitude and actual behaviour do not always align. Polling is a ‘crude thermometer’ of public opinion – but the real deliberation of policy is better left to initiatives that involve citizens in the discussion. The upcoming citizens’ assembly on climate change is a good example of such an initiative.

The next question to ask is what kind of policy interventions should be called for. Prof Whitmarsh explained two categories: ‘downstream’ and ‘upstream’. Downstream interventions influence individual decision-making (for example, information and advertising campaigns). Upstream interventions shape the context in which decisions are made (for example, available public transport options).

Providing information about potential benefits of changes (or harms of current behaviours) as a downstream intervention provides an interesting example of the complexity involved in policy making. It is seen as a simple, low-cost and uncontroversial (therefore good) intervention. However, there is evidence to suggest that providing information could in fact result in a more polarised public.

In the age of mass media, we are confronted with ever more information from multiple sources on a daily basis, making it difficult to identify what is useful. However, we still suffer from the same biases. Particularly potent is confirmation bias; we seek out information that confirms our prior beliefs and dismiss information to the contrary. This means it is difficult to change people’s opinions once they have been formed.

This doesn’t mean we can’t use information, only that we need to be smarter about how it is communicated. This is where the recognition of values can be useful. Separate studies suggest that the framing of narratives can affect people on different sides of the political spectrum differently. Those self-identifying as right-wing, for instance, are more amenable to narratives around ‘waste’ or ‘frugality’. By comparison, those on the left prefer a narrative around ‘justice’. Emphasising different approaches can appeal to different sections of society.

The recognition of co-benefits can also help bring people on board. If people think that by helping the environment, they are also helping themselves, in terms of health or financially, they are often more likely to make changes. Reminding people of other benefits also helps persuade those who are demotivated by the scale of climate change and would otherwise not engage at all to make adjustments.

The framing of information presented to the public clearly has a large role to play – but even well communicated information faces a significant barrier: habits.

Many of the actions people will be required to take are embedded in their daily routines, such as their commute and what they eat. Once individuals form these habits, it can be very difficult to change them for the better, regardless of the appeal of information. What can be done about this?

Even long-standing habits suffer disruption every now and again. When we switch to a new job or move to a new house, we need to figure out a new commute. These disruptive events provide good opportunities for well-timed interventions.

In a study conducted in Germany, recent movers to a town were offered information about, and a free one-day pass for, public transport. The same incentive was given to existing residents. Six weeks later, the recent movers were significantly more likely to still be using public transport compared to the residents in the control group.

When designing downstream interventions, therefore, it is important to think about the timing as much as the design.

What of upstream interventions? Clearly, government has a key role to play in instigating lifestyle changes, particularly those that need to be made quickly and at scale. Regulations and incentives will be needed to affect the environment in which individuals make their decisions.

Of course, sweeping changes to our daily lives cannot be implemented overnight. Perceived fairness, and perceived effectiveness, are significant drivers of policy support. This is where citizen participation initiatives can be useful in getting the public on board and producing recommendations that enjoy broad appeal. This then gives governments the mandate to introduce changes.

Prof Whitmarsh concluded her presentation with the following requirements for effective public engagement:

  1. Targeting values and identities
  2. Changing (and using) social norms
  3. Creating positive narratives and building self-efficacy (as opposed to negative, fear-based messaging)
  4. Moving beyond simply ‘nudge’ to more conscious, deliberative action
  5. Focusing on the behaviours that matter
  6. Ensuring the timing is right


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