‘Opportunity and hope around meaningful change’

Ella Rhodes reports on evidence to the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee.

Psychologists have emphasised the importance of eco-emotions, a connection with nature and systemic approaches aimed at tackling the climate emergency. The House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee, chaired by the Baroness Parminter, has been exploring ways to use behaviour change in relation to the environment, as well as policy measures to support these changes.

In written evidence the Centre for Behaviour Change (CBC), based at University College London, said in designing behaviour change interventions it was important to consider what may make them less likely to work – for example, failing to consider the reasons for people’s behaviour, believing that simply providing information was enough to change behaviour, or assuming that people always act rationally. They wrote that interventions should be developed with the engagement and representation of the people targeted. Implementation should be considered at the outset of intervention design, and theory and frameworks used to understand the current behaviour. 

The CBC suggested that the Behaviour Change Wheel framework would be the best model to use as it was ‘comprehensive, coherent, linked to a model of behaviour and useable without specialist training’. Tackling climate change using behaviour change, they said, would require large-scale change of numerous behaviours which would involve complex systems of actors. 

Leader of the Nature Connectedness Research Group, Professor Miles Richardson (University of Derby), emphasised the importance of our feeling of connection with the natural world when taking action to protect it. In his written evidence he pointed to the 2020 UK Covid lockdowns, which increased the public’s connection with nature and their levels of pro-nature behaviours.

Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist Dr Elizabeth Marks (University of Bath), Dr Panu Pihkala (Adjunct Professor of Environmental Theology, University of Helsinki), Caroline Hickman (University of Bath), and Elouise Mayall (University of East Anglia), submitted written evidence and highlighted the importance of eco-emotions. They pointed to a recent study of 10,000 children and young people in 10 countries, including the UK, which explored their feelings about climate change. Many felt powerless, anxious, sad and afraid at the thought of climate change. Respondents also shared their beliefs about the current state of the climate with many agreeing that people had failed to take care of the planet, that the future was frightening, and humanity doomed.

Marks and her colleagues wrote that approaches to encourage behaviour change should demonstrate how those changes could make a difference. ‘By offering individuals both opportunity and hope around meaningful change, they are more likely to experience emotional satisfaction and social acceptance of pro-environmental behaviours.’

Associate Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations Professor Wouter Poortinga (Cardiff University) shared his insights with the committee at an oral evidence session. He pointed out that a high level of concern about climate change did not automatically lead to behaviour change and said when people make decisions about their behaviour they consider multiple factors alongside the environment. 

When asked about what the public expect from government in terms of supporting change for the sake of the climate, Poortinga shared some of his research into perceptions of climate change and coronavirus. He found that while the public felt a joint responsibility with governments to tackle coronavirus, in terms of climate change the public saw the responsibility as lying with governments and felt their own actions would be less effective. ‘If individuals do not see the Government taking the lead, or taking their part, in dealing with those crises, individuals are also less willing to play their own part in trying to deal with the issue.’

Poortinga ended with some suggestions for government in terms of communications and behaviour change policy for climate and environmental issues. He said there was no silver bullet for behaviour change interventions. ‘You need to combine multiple measures that includes education, that includes communication, that includes infrastructure investments, that includes taxation or fiscal measures and regulation as well… trust is incredibly important. You would want to have the trust of the public in order to get to net zero.’

Director of the University of Cambridge Behaviour and Health Research Unit, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau also appeared at an oral evidence session with the committee. She explained that there were two broad approaches to behaviour change – those targeting individuals and those targeting environments and systems. ‘We need both but the emphasis to date… has been too much on targeting individuals and not enough on targeting those systems or environments that shape our behaviour. While information… about the impact of our behaviour on carbon emissions can be important in raising our awareness, its impact on our behaviour is at best minimal, and we need to retain that as a core observation. That is no reason not to give information, but it is not going to shift behaviour.’

One of Marteau’s main recommendations to the committee was for government to develop a science strategy and delivery body for changing behaviour to reach net zero, to be led by the Committee on Climate Change. She said this strategy would need to be both evidence-led and far more ambitious, in scale and speed, than other previous interventions by government – and have evaluation built in. She also made a plea to the committee to ensure it was properly resourced. ‘It needs to engage the whole of civil society, as well as business, and policymakers at local, national and international levels… The task is huge, but the prize is also huge.’ 

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