A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Lorraine Whitmarsh on the climate emergency

Lorraine Whitmarsh profileInterview with Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport. She is based at the University of Bath and is Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). She is also a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and regularly advises governmental and other organisations on low-carbon behaviour change and climate change communication.

How important is public opinion in shaping climate policies?

Policymakers need to feel they have the support of the public. There is currently a strong public call for action. However, what policymakers do is only partly informed by public opinion. They also draw influence from scientific evidence, economic interest and other policy priorities.

Is the vegan trend among millennials a sign of a spontaneous shifting of public opinion on climate action?

That is an example of spontaneous changes in behaviour without government intervention. However, the motivation comes from concerns like health or animal welfare, rather than environment. Another example is the recent change in travel habits and teleworking, which has reduced car use. However, these changes are triggered by the pandemic. A good example of spontaneous changes in behaviour is the circular economy: clothes sharing, apps for selling clothes that keep things in use for longer. Car sharing is another example, as young people prefer not to own a car or even get a driving license.

On the other hand, there are also examples of climate policies that really infuriate people, for example, the Yellow Vests in France.

That was less about objecting to climate change policies, but rather to putting pressure on people who were already financially constrained. When a climate policy is unfair, people who are already marginalised will be strongly opposed to it. Frequent flyer levies have a lot of support from the public, because people who fly a lot are a tiny and rich minority. There is some level of fairness embedded in the policy. However, protests against low traffic neighbourhoods are a different case. Low traffic neighbourhoods are a really good policy for reducing congestion, accidents, etc. They even have business benefits. However, many residents are very vocal in their opposition to them because they make it difficult to park. In those cases, low traffic neighbourhoods have been more successful in areas where residents are engaged from the beginning. You are less likely to face opposition when the public is an active part in the scheme’s decision-making process. This is an important lesson.

So, can a policy that is fair and effective still face opposition?

Policies receive more support when they do not eliminate choice. For example, there is less support for the total restriction of flying and transport than for greener transport. In general, it is difficult to impose limitations on areas such as transport and diet. However, if you allow for alternatives, without complete prohibition, people will start to shift. A study on catering in canteens showed that, when vegetarian choices were increased from 1 in 4 to 2 in 4, the sale of vegetarian food increased by 80 %, while still keeping half of meat options. These are quick wins that we should implement now.

Does climate concern translate into a willingness to take action that is reflected in the ballots?

There is definitely a gap between awareness of the problem and acceptance of the policies. Climate is not the only thing people will consider when looking at a policy. When you look at carbon taxes, if your job depends on driving, you will naturally oppose them. People will weigh up not only effectiveness, but also fairness and personal cost. This is why fuel taxes and meat taxes are not popular. The most popular policies are not very effective in general. Effectiveness is just one dimension; fairness and personal cost matter too.

In general, which policies are more likely to be accepted, and which are more likely to generate refusal?

The policies that are most likely to be accepted are those of an informational nature: carbon labels, better education, carbon disclosure, etc. They help decision-making but do not coerce people. However, they are not very effective. People also support pull policies, like subsidies for heat pumps, insulation, electric vehicles and improving public transport. These policies improve the attractiveness of low-carbon options, but still allow for choice. However, they are still not extremely effective. The more you impose restrictions, the less support you receive. Any policy that involves raising taxes is unpopular. An exception to this is the frequent flyer levy, because it is highly targeted. In addition, the more policies redistribute costs, the more they are accepted. For example, using carbon taxes to reduce the cost of low-carbon products. This allows people to make choices.

Are technological fixes always preferable to difficult lifestyle changes?

Generally, people prefer the idea of a technological solution to climate change over changes to their behaviour. For example, people would prefer to continue to drive a lot, but switch to an electric vehicle. This is because it boils down to not restricting their choices. However, often only certain people can afford such technological solutions. On the other hand, while people tend to resist [behavioural] changes, they accept them more easily when they experience the benefits. For example, congestion charges, i.e. paying a tax to enter a city by car, are often rejected in advance. When such measures are in place, they see an increase in support once people start to experience a cleaner, healthier alternative.

What would you suggest to a politician who wants to fight climate change without generating a backlash?

The first thing is engaging with the public. Listen to people, talk to them, and explain that we need to change our behaviours. Have an honest conversation and listen to people’s concerns. The second thing is the use of policies that retain choice and that do not generate an excessive cost. Redistribute costs in such a way that you end up increasing lower income households’ quality of life. Start with less effective, quicker policies, and then build up to more restrictions.

Has COVID-19 helped to shift public opinion on climate policies?

That window of opportunity has not completely closed. There are still opportunities to lock in good habits adopted by people [during the pandemic]. If companies allowed for partial work from home, that would reduce travel for commuting, and people could prepare their own food and reduce food waste, use leftovers, and be more aware of what is in the fridge. It may be feasible for local authorities to encourage active travel patterns, e.g., keeping restrictions in place in the city centre which allow for wider pavements and less space for cars. If those measures were implemented on a permanent basis, it would encourage people to use cars less. Authorities should consult with residents on how to implement this in an effective way. There is also opportunity to be found in the pandemic experience itself. People have felt part of a global community, have experienced mutual support and collective actions. Those experiences could be applied to climate change.

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