Climate, COVID and moments of change

Words: Rob Moore

Conduit member Rob Moore, Director at Behaviour Change, shares new research that reveals how UK citizens really feel about climate change and suggests how green campaigners can change their approach to inspire genuine and impactful action.

The last six months have been a moment of reckoning: we’ve been confronting entrenched, systemic issues in society, from racial justice, to gross economic inequality and climate change. Crisis points like this can inspire visions of a better world and we’re hopeful that ‘building back better’ in the light of coronavirus, Black Lives Matter and global heating means realising a vision of a fairer, kinder, greener world. But this demands radical change. The UK’s commitment to reaching net zero – i.e. reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels – will be a critical parameter in defining what this radical change looks like.

During the tumult of 2020, sustainable behaviours have gained more mainstream traction and awareness. Some of these may seem small, like walking and cycling more, or eating less meat and dairy – but, adopted en masse, these kind of lifestyle changes could add up to 62% of emissions reductions required by 2050 (as estimated by the Climate Change Committee in 2019). Some may see behaviour change as a way of tinkering around the edges while letting governments and corporations off the hook, but the reality is that, in a net-zero world, we will be living very different lives, for which few of us are prepared. Our consumption of meat and dairy will have drastically reduced, and we’ll be mindful when we buy new electronics, appliances and clothes. Our roads and public spaces will be overhauled to make walking and cycling safer and easier. For some, working life will be more flexible, with a greater proportion of work done remotely. Available space in cities will be turned over to nature. Just imagine – fewer cars on the road, fewer planes in the sky, fewer people crushed into rush-hour trains and buses. Living in lockdown in such worrying circumstances is not fair or sustainable, and yet some of the changes it has brought to the way we live have given us a glimpse of the future.

So often, the rhetoric of global heating is apocalyptic, urgent, and terrifying – appropriate language for a crisis. Now that we’ve been given a bittersweet opportunity to build back better, it’s good to see visions of a hopeful alternative future surfacing. Cities cloaked in green. Safe, warm accommodation for all. Neighbourhoods built to prioritise communities, not traffic. But how are we actually going to get there? From a citizen perspective, what knowledge and attitudes do we need in place to support the reality of ‘building back better’?

In late 2019, Behaviour Change commissioned qualitative research to find out where mainstream citizens really are in terms of understanding, feelings and personal action on climate change. This repeated an approach we had first taken exactly ten years earlier, and our findings assess the extent to which things have moved on since then. The run-up to the new research had seen an array of extreme weather events, and widespread media coverage of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and plastics pollution, but was this translating into increased knowledge and commitment to personal change for people outside an ‘activist’ community?

Overall, people are now aware of a much ‘noisier’ picture of issues, organisations and opinions than they were ten years ago. At the same time, people are struggling to move on from doing their recycling to taking more impactful action. We identified four major gaps in understanding and awareness about the UK’s journey to net zero, which were:

  1. A lack of understanding about what we personally will need to do
  2. A lack of understanding about where emissions come from and how they contribute to global heating
  3. A lack of awareness about the UK’s legally binding targets and timeframes
  4. A lack of acute concern or urgency

We were surprised by our findings, and we hope they’ll act as a useful reality check for practitioners.

1. A lack of understanding about what we personally will need to do to achieve net zero

When asked what pro-environmental behaviours they were already doing, or would consider, most participants told us they’re already doing quite a lot for the environment. Worryingly, however, in actual fact their actions centre on anti-waste behaviours which, though important, are relatively low-impact in carbon terms. Recycling has continued to expand into more areas of life, and single-use plastics have burst onto the scene as a major outlet for outrage and anxiety, with David Attenborough and increasing concern for ocean wildlife mentioned as major factors.

Ultimately, the impactful things that people need to do for the environment[1] are very different to their expectations. It came as a big surprise to the majority when they were confronted with some possible ‘asks’ of the near future for the UK to meet its net zero target, such as:

  • Halve meat and dairy intake
  • Stop using gas for home heating
  • Use an electric car
  • Take no more than one return flight a year

2. A lack of understanding about where emissions come from and how they contribute to global heating

Even the most engaged and environmentally-conscious participants couldn’t explain the connection between global heating or extreme weather and the things they were personally doing to benefit the environment. The links are poorly understood between our own actions, fossil fuels and a changing climate.

Because of this lack of understanding, people aren’t equipped to distinguish between two interconnected but separate problems: mess in the natural world on the one hand, and greenhouse gases causing global heating on the other. This could explain why recycling remains the top action for most, even though only 3% of household emissions come from waste. It’s simply easier for people to focus on achieving small, instant asks, like avoiding plastic straws or bags, when the actual lifestyle changes we need to make will require significant long-term changes and sacrifices.

3. A lack of awareness about the UK’s legally binding requirement to get to net zero emissions by 2050

Despite the fact that the UK government committed to a net zero target in May 2019, it feels as though few in the wider world know about the existence of this legally binding timeframe, let alone what kind of societal changes will be required to meet it. People are shocked by the extent of the reductions in their household emissions that are actually required – around 90%. Governments around the world have begun introducing similar or even more ambitious targets, with some of our European neighbours aiming to reach net zero at various points between 2030 and 2050. Despite these commitments, how many of us are really aware of being on a collective national journey towards a net zero future? We can’t help thinking that knowing this would help people accept some of the big changes coming our way.

4. A lack of acute concern or urgency

Despite more and more extreme weather events around the world, and constant news of record-breaking temperatures, global heating somehow still feels like a distant worry. Behavioural science tells us we’re not programmed to react to far-off threats we can’t see or touch, and many of us don’t really believe that our children or our children’s children will be significantly impacted by global heating. Among our research participants, there was strong negative feeling towards Extinction Rebellion, and Greta Thunberg was seen by many as “irritating” or “hysterical”. Additionally, the existence of “extreme”-sounding rhetoric at both ends of the spectrum was linked to a tendency for people to disengage. As long as debate continues about what exactly should be done and why, people feel justified in not worrying – or acting – too much.

This has led us to speculate whether people feel there’s a “reasonable” middle ground in between “extreme”-sounding perspectives like those of, say, Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg (while from the perspective of achieving net zero, the “reasonable” ground sits firmly with Greta).

We also reflected on what we’ve started calling the ‘vicious circle’ of public unconcern and a lack of government leadership. Our democracy is built on short-term popularity, compounding the problem: who wants to make unpopular decisions to mitigate a threat which is publicly perceived as barely-there? As long as the government delay taking radical action, people feel justified in not worrying too much – and, conversely, as long as people aren’t demanding radical change, the government delay it.

Moving forwards…

These findings might sound depressing, but we think they give us grounds for optimism too, especially now that public appetite for change has swelled during the coronavirus crisis. While governments around the world have a long way to go to meet the challenges of the future, identifying barriers like these provides us with direction for change. Above all, a unifying narrative about our national journey to net zero, implemented in a fair way across society, could help people accept some of the big asks of the future.

Traditionally among green campaigners, there’s been a narrative of small changes adding up to a big difference. This narrative needs an update: we’re not talking now about tinkering around the edges, but overhauling society in the image of a fair, green future. This will involve sweeping and significant changes, and while there are some things we can begin to do alone, like cutting our meat intake or avoiding a flight, a systems change approach needs to be adopted from the top to establish critical transitions like moving the UK’s 28 million homes on from gas heating, or retrofitting them with effective insulation.

I’m keen to collaborate with anybody working on this challenge so do get in touch.

Rob Moore is co-founder of the 10-year-old not-for-profit Behaviour Change, developing innovative solutions to social and environmental challenges. His main interest lies in translating behavioural insight into real-world interventions. He is passionate about climate change mitigation and is focusing Behaviour Change’s mission-driven work on finding ways to translate growing public awareness and concern into actual change.