‘Almost every area of psychology has something to contribute to addressing climate change’

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh on psychology’s role in tackling climate change. As told to Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne.

At the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) we are addressing the question of how we as a society can change the way we live our lives to significantly reduce our emissions in a rapid timeframe. It’s in light of the 1.5°C report that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in 2018, saying that we’ve got just over a decade in which to make radical cuts in our emissions. 

We’re really focusing on the people side of how we do that. Other centres are looking at the technological and engineering side of how we mitigate climate change, but we’re interested in what people can do. Our centre has psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and one or two engineers and people from other backgrounds. We’ve been running for less than 18 months, but have already had some significant outputs.

Four high emission areas

We’re looking particularly at four areas: mobility, food, heating and cooling, and material consumption. Those are particularly high emission activities, and they’ve proven quite challenging to decarbonise historically. And importantly, as well as reducing emissions, we ideally want to address broader sustainability and wellbeing goals. We want to try and reduce emissions in a way that improves people’s health and wellbeing, improves equality in society, addresses poverty, and does so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the impact of climate change. So we’re interested in decarbonisation that achieves ‘co-benefits’ as we call it, side benefits along those lines. 

These four areas are equally important. They all present different challenges and opportunities. I’ve done more in the area of mobility and transport, so I have a better grip on how we might achieve some of the changes required there. There are really important structural and physical barriers for people adopting low carbon travel habits. It’s definitely not easy to do. But we do know a reasonable amount about how we do it. And there are really important health co-benefits associated with active travel – so if you get people to walk and cycle there are obvious health benefits, both to the individual and urban areas in terms of clean air and so on. 

You could say the same about food, because a low carbon diet is also a healthy diet – if you cut down on red meat, that’s one of the best things you can do tackle climate change. A diet based more on plants than meat or dairy is also much healthier, cutting your risk of cancer and various other health problems. Talking about these side-benefits can help motivate a wider range of people. 

The other two areas might be a bit more challenging. Material consumption really comes down to challenging the assumption that we need to consume our way out of environmental problems just by buying greener products or recycling. Actually it’s about reducing the amount that we consume – buying less stuff is one of the best things you can do as well. That’s politically and socially quite a difficult concept to grasp. The whole of our economy is geared towards consumption. 

At the household level, the biggest contribution of our energy use is heating our homes. Turning down the thermostat is one thing you can do, but we also need to change the technologies that keep our homes warm. Most of us use gas boilers. We need to transition towards lower carbon technologies like heat pumps, as well as insulating our homes. There’s a sense that people don’t want to give up their comfort, they don’t like the idea that they might have to freeze in their own homes. The flipside is cooling. Our temperatures are rising, and we’re getting more heatwaves and high temperatures in the summer. A lot of our buildings are not very well equipped to cope with the heat. There is already increasing demand for air conditioning in homes and offices. We’re going to see more energy demand to meet that need, so we need to think about how we can get people to ventilate their houses, for example – so the behavioural actions to reduce the risk of heat stress without resorting to high carbon options like air conditioning. All of these things will make a massive contribution to reducing carbon footprints.

Not just environmental psychologists

In 2015 we wrote a paper for Nature Climate Change. As a group of psychologists from the UK, North America and elsewhere in Europe we summarised what psychologists can do to contribute to tackling climate change. The review article outlines the fact that psychologists know how to communicate the risks of climate change; in periods of heatwave we can help people to reduce the risk of heat stress, and we can help people prepare against flood risks and so on. We can inform interventions to encourage people to reduce their emissions. Almost every area of psychology has something to contribute to addressing climate change.

We can contribute to policy design, information campaigns, and ways of engaging with the public to inform them about climate change and the role that they can play. There was a whole range of things that we outlined – it’s not just about individuals in the home. Organisational psychologists can get business leaders to think about organisational change to address climate change. Political psychologists working with policymaking organisations and politicians can contribute to the design of more effective policies and of political processes, like citizen’s assemblies on climate change. People aren’t just consumers or employees, they are also voters. Exercising this political power is at least as important as changing your own behaviour to reduce your carbon footprint.

We can definitely do more than just raise awareness or communicate climate change more effectively, though this is still an important role for our field. Communicating both the risks of climate change and what people can do about it in a more evidence-based way is vital for informed decision-making. There is a risk in using fear-based approaches to communication that stress the worst-case scenario – they can disempower people and lead them to switch off. We need to build self-efficacy – the sense that people can actually reduce the risks of climate change, and make a difference individually and collectively. The message that it might be ‘too late’ to tackle climate change is similarly likely to demotivate people. We need to show not only that change is possible but that action taken now will be effective and beneficial to the climate, and often to people themselves too.

Going further

But we can go further than awareness raising and communication to help design interventions and policies that are based on an understanding of human behaviour and how to change it. This includes interventions to shape personal behaviours, like shopping, energy use, and travel choices, but also professional behaviours, like resource use in the workplace or integrating sustainability into organisational policies. 

Similarly, psychology can shed light on what sort of policies will be acceptable, and how to provide a stronger voice for people in policymaking. For example, in CAST, we are involved in designing a range of interventions including encouraging low-carbon travel habits amongst new residents. We are working with City Councils to provide information (designed to resonate with values, such as highlighting health or wellbeing benefits) and incentives to residents and employees when they relocate to encourage active travel, like walking and cycling, and public transport use. This will accompany infrastructure change, such as cycle paths, to enable change. By getting the timing right – targeting moments of change, such as relocation – we hope the interventions will be much more effective than when applied in stable contexts, when habits are a major barrier.

We are also working with companies to reduce employees’ resource use. With employers, we will identify how to embed sustainable behaviour change within their procedures and practices, such as supply chain decision-making and promotion criteria, so that low-carbon choices are defaults or rewarded. 

Another thing we’re doing in CAST is helping design and evaluate deliberative processes such as the Climate Assembly UK, which was a large-scale citizen engagement process to bring public views into UK Parliament’s climate change policy-making. With other expert leads and facilitators, we ensured that the information provided was balanced and accessible, that deliberations were meaningful, and that participants’ decisions were useable by policy-makers in designing the UK’s ‘Net Zero’ policies.

Without psychological – alongside other social science – insights, these interventions might not take account of important factors like habits or social norms that can act as barriers to changing lifestyles and wider society.

Academic flying

Our research shows that academics do a lot of flying both professionally and personally, as they often have higher incomes. There’s a whole conference culture, so it’s expected that you will be flying all over the place, and it’s seen as a perk of the job. There’s a strongly established norm and people are quite resistant to change. The slight silver lining is that we are seeing a bit of a shift. Amongst the academics that I’m working with there does seem to be a lot more effort being made to put on virtual conferences, or at least conferences with an option for virtual attendance. 

For example, we co-organised a session at the ‘beyond oil conference’ hosted in Bergen in Norway, and we had a couple of speakers based in Cardiff, with a little audience in a seminar room. There were questions from both locations and it worked amazingly well. We didn’t even need high tech options – just video conferencing and a webcam. The more we raise awareness of that option, the more it will gradually become mainstream. COVID-19 has, of course, shown that a lot of our physical travel can be replaced by virtual alternatives.

We’ve just published some research that shows that climate change academics and researchers are actually the worst in terms of flying – they fly more than people who don’t study climate change, which is quite damning. It just goes to show that knowledge itself is definitely not enough of a predictor of behaviour, it’s the structures. It may be that climate change being an international issue is driving some of the travel for fieldwork and meetings overseas. But we definitely need to do better at walking the talk.

The future

I think in general I feel hopeful for the future. But that might just be a coping mechanism. I have young children and if I seriously think about what the world might be like when they’re growing up I do start to worry. I think I just have to assume that it probably is going to be okay otherwise I don’t know if I’d get out of bed in the morning.

It is increasingly shown that what we need to tackle climate change is social and behavioural change. Analysis by the UK Committee on Climate Change recently showed that most of what we need to do to get to net zero is social and behavioural as opposed to technological. That suggests there’s a really important role that psychologists, but also other social scientists, can play in developing solutions. It’s about considering what we can do professionally as well as in our personal life to make a difference.

Lorraine Whitmarsh is Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Bath and Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). 

Editor's note: Originally published online on 4 September 2020.

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