ACCESS all areas

Ella Rhodes reports on a five-year programme led by psychologists.

Three psychologists are leading an ambitious multi-million pound project to help tackle the climate emergency. The five-year ACCESS (Advancing Capacity for Climate and Environment Social Science) programme is led by Professor Patrick Devine-Wright (University of Exeter), with Deputy Director Professor Birgitta Gatersleben (University of Surrey) and Co-Director Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh (University of Bath).

Over the next five years they and their team and partners aim to raise the visibility, use and impact of environmental social science through examining the integration of social scientists into interdisciplinary teams in education, science and policy; developing future research questions; making social science more responsive to the evidence needs of stakeholders; establishing a network of environmental social scientists in both science and practice; and supporting the co-production of new knowledge.

Devine-Wright said ACCESS had a broad remit. ‘Environmental social science has a key role to play in tackling the range of environmental crises that we face, from climate change to waste, pollution and biodiversity loss. Within and across these challenges, we seek to inform changes in behaviours (for example mobility, diet, heating and cooling) but also changes at a variety of scales from individuals to institutions and society more generally. That is why all of the social sciences have a vital role to play in ACCESS.’

Funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council), the ACCESS team includes other UK universities and the Natural Environment and Social Research Network, and will involve partners such as the National Trust, local councils, and the devolved governments of the UK. Given the important role of behaviour change in reducing emissions, the team will work to understand how to affect the human and institutional changes needed to reach net zero.

Devine-Wright said the response of science, and particularly psychology, in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic had demonstrated the ways in which responsive, agile and timely research and knowledge could inform societal responses to an urgent crisis. ‘In many ways, we can draw similar parallels with the climate crisis. Climate change is fundamentally caused by human behaviour so psychology has a critical role to play in addressing it and in identifying responses that improve human wellbeing.’  

Devine-Wright emphasised that policy responses need to be based upon a robust evidence base that adequately captures different forms of knowledge. ‘Bringing the social sciences, including psychology, to bear on policy responses to environmental challenges is an absolutely vital aspect of successfully addressing those challenges. That is not an easy task, as there are structural barriers both in academic and policy contexts that challenge the easy transfer of knowledge across boundaries. Our aim is to work with policy makers to improve access to existing knowledge and support co-creation of new knowledge with strong scientific rigour and high practical application.’

In the longer-term Devine-Wright said he hoped that ACCESS would have several impacts. ‘First, to produce a cohort of social scientists with the capacities and connections to flourish in interdisciplinary teams tackling environmental problems over the coming decades. Second, to ensure that social science (in tandem with natural science, engineering and other disciplinary expertise) is widely considered to be central to understanding and responding to environmental challenges. Ultimately, our hope is that we, as a society, effectively tackle the many environmental crises that we currently face, and that ACCESS plays an important role in informing policies that successfully tackle environmental problems.’ 

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