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Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis

Steffen Böhm
Sian Sullivan

VII. Action (s)

27. Public Engagement with Radical Climate Change Action

Lorraine Whitmarsh


The role of people in addressing climate change is often relegated to merely consumers. While adopting electric vehicles and heat pumps, for example, will indeed be critical for reaching climate targets, people will also need to engage as political, social and professional actors to achieve the scale of societal transformation needed. This includes actively engaging in both decision-making and in delivery in respect of climate action. Here, I discuss the varied roles that the public can play in decision-making and in taking rapid and radical climate action, their current levels of engagement with climate change, and how to foster further public action. I argue that we have a unique opportunity as we build back society post-COVID-19 to lock in low-carbon habits created during the pandemic, and to build on the growing social mandate for bold policy action to support sustainable lifestyles.

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1In this chapter, I discuss the multiple roles the public can play in climate action—as consumers, citizens, parents, community members, employees and professional decision-makers—and how we can better engage the public in decision-making and action to achieve rapid and significant emission cuts to mitigate climate change. I argue that public engagement is critical both for building a public mandate for radical social change, but also for achieving profound lifestyle, community, organisational and policy transformation. Public engagement is potentially a very broad concept that captures: (a) engagement in decision-making (including policy-making) about how to reach net zero; and (b) engagement in delivery of action to reach net zero (i.e., ‘behaviour change’ in its broadest sense, including lifestyle change, technology adoption/use, policy support, activism, and awareness raising). These two forms of engagement are interlinked—if we have joined-up thinking and a national conversation on these issues (i.e., engagement with decision-making) that would also help with the delivery of net zero since it provides the context and rationale for specific behavioural and structural interventions; and fosters collective efficacy and trust (Dietz and Stern 2009; Capstick et al. 2019).

2Evidence shows a key predictor of policy acceptance by the public is perceived fairness, including procedural fairness (i.e., involving people in decisions that affect them; Dreyer and Walker 2013; Schmocker et al. 2012). This means that we cannot have a net zero transition without the public ‘noticing’ (i.e., via supply-side change and consumer nudges); indeed, social/behavioural change is required for the majority of measures to reach net zero (CCC 2019). Reconfiguration of urban environments, food and transport systems, energy technologies, and provision of goods and services, are hugely disruptive to lifestyles and may require changes in values and norms. Developments that may be less disruptive to lifestyles but still pose risks and costs to society (e.g., supply-side and negative emissions technologies) also require public buy-in (RCUK 2010). Thus, the inevitably visible, disruptive and risky transformation to net zero requires a public mandate—hence active engagement with publics to co-produce net zero futures and pathways, including collectively assessing their risks and benefits, and to achieve buy-in to their delivery (also see Halme et al., this volume).

How Engaged Is the Public?

3So, how ‘engaged’ is the public with climate change at the moment? The last few years have seen a significant rise in public concern about climate change: polling in the UK and elsewhere showed unprecedented worry about climate change during 2019, which has been maintained into 2020 despite competing concerns over COVID-19 (BEIS 2019; Leiserowitz et al. 2020; Ipsos MORI 2020). In fact, one UK survey (Whitmarsh et al. 2020) found that the perceived urgency of tackling climate change was higher during the pandemic (May 2020) than in August the previous year (74 % up from 62 % seeing it as an ‘extremely high’ or ‘high’ level of urgency). Furthermore, support for climate change mitigation policies, including measures to decrease meat consumption and flying, was higher during the pandemic (67 % and 85 %, respectively) than in 2019 (53 % and 67 %, respectively). This apparent support for ambitious action to address climate change has been reflected in (and strengthened by) high-profile public protests and ‘school strikes’ around the world (Thackeray et al. 2020), as well as a shift in media language and societal discourse to reconceptualise the issue as a ‘climate emergency’ (Carrington 2019; Zhou 2019).

4There has also been a growth in deliberative democracy activities that provide a stronger voice for the public in national and local policy-making on climate change, notably the Climate Assembly UK, the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate, and various regional and city-level citizens’ assemblies and juries (Capstick et al. 2020). These engagement activities seek to elicit informed public opinion on low-carbon visions and pathways, and have shown strong support for ambitious climate action (e.g., CAUK 2020; Citizens Convention on Climate 2020). Yet, it is widely acknowledged that stated preferences (via polls, interviews, deliberative discussions, etc.) often diverge from actual behaviour—the so-called ‘value-action’ gap (Blake 1999). Indeed, despite people’s good intentions, there remain significant structural and social barriers to engagement with climate change at the behavioural level (e.g., Lorenzoni et al. 2007). Demand for material goods, car travel and aviation, for example, have grown rapidly in recent years; while low-carbon behaviours—such as walking and cycling, eating a plant-based diet, and reduced consumption—often remain inconvenient, inaccessible, socially and/or economically costly (CAUK 2020; Whittle et al. 2019).

5Here, I provide some concrete suggestions for how to build public engagement with climate change, both in terms of providing a stronger role for the public in decision-making, and in public participation in the delivery of action to achieve the UK’s net zero goal. These suggestions are grounded in psychological, sociological, economics and political science literatures which provide insights on public participation and behaviour change in its broadest sense.

Engagement in Decision-Making

6In the case of engagement in decision-making, this would ideally involve local deliberative processes to identify tailored solutions and build community participation, as well as an overarching ‘national conversation’ on options for reaching net zero, including supply-side and demand-side changes. This would require being:

a. Joined up across sectors and scales (i.e., consistent messaging and policies embedded across government departments, devolved governments, local authorities, etc.). This could involve co-development of a shared vision and ‘branding’ around net zero (similar to the ‘Energiewende’ in Germany; Moss et al. 2015) that provides the coordinated, overarching, joined-up vision demanded by citizens (CAUK 2020), tying together the variety of changes people see and are asked to make, and giving a sense of collective efficacy and ownership; and

b. Timely in influencing decision-making—i.e., upstream engagement in policy-making at national and local levels (using deliberative approaches, such as citizens’ assemblies/juries, online deliberative polling, etc.; Dietz and Stern 2009).

Engagement in Delivery

7Behaviour change is a central element of delivering net zero, so public engagement is key for realising this goal (CCC 2019). Behaviour change, though, is not only required for consumer-citizens, but also other individuals and groups across a range of contexts (e.g., parents, communities, employees, employers, political actors; Whitmarsh et al. 2010). Behaviour change is not only about adoption of net zero technology—though consumer behaviour is important. It more fully encompasses:

c. Adoption of low/no-carbon technology and products (in personal or professional contexts);

d. Use and disposal of low/no-carbon technology and products (in personal or professional contexts);

e. Acceptance of (or demand for) large-scale low/no-carbon infrastructure, including supply-side and greenhouse gas removal technologies;

f. Political action to support or demand climate change action (voting, protesting, boycotting);

g. Community and voluntary action to promote low-carbon choices (hosting or owning low/no-carbon developments, volunteering for climate causes, etc.); and

h. Creating and disseminating climate change narratives/ discourses that normalise and promote low-carbon lifestyles, call out inaction (by people, businesses, policy-makers, schools, family members, etc.), and raise awareness through conversations, as well as modelling change through action.

8There is a vast literature on how to change behaviour, and much can be learnt from historical and international examples of transformation (e.g., tobacco control, urban sustainable transport). Key findings from this evidence base include:

a. Change is required across multiple levels and using various levers (information and incentives alone will not be sufficient; broader social, infrastructural, technical, and regulatory interventions are also required; Lorenzoni et al. 2007; Corner et al. 2019);

b. Interventions should exploit and be framed around co-benefits or win-wins (e.g., wellbeing/health, equity, cost-saving/profit; Bain et al. 2016; Maibach et al. 2010; Whitmarsh and Corner 2017);

c. Interventions should be timely at the point of decision-making (e.g., buying a car or appliance; renovating a house) and when habits are disrupted/malleable (see below; Graham-Rowe et al. 2011; Wilson et al. 2015);

d. Changing social norms through leadership, exemplifying/ disseminating innovations and good practice through networks, and using trusted messengers to communicate, are important (Clayton et al. 2015; Corner et al. 2019; Pettifor et al. 2017); and

e. Building public support is key to leveraging government action for behavioural interventions (particularly if there is industry resistance; Willis 2017; Corner et al. 2019).

Moments of Change and COVID-19

9A growing literature points to the importance not only of how to intervene to achieve social and lifestyle change, but also when. Much of our behaviour is habitual—unconscious routines triggered by contextual cues (e.g., ‘it’s 8am, time to drive to work’) rather than conscious deliberation of alternatives (e.g., ‘which mode of transport would be best today?’; Kurz et al. 2015). Habits are one of the strongest impediments to lifestyle change, acting to ‘lock in’ behaviour (Marechal and Lazaric 2011). Many interventions (e.g., information campaigns) are ineffective because they are not strong enough to disrupt habits (Verplanken et al. 1997). But since habits are cued by stable contexts (i.e., the same time, place and/or social group; Wood et al. 2005), change in context disrupts habits (Verplanken et al. 2008). Consistent with this observation, ‘moments of change’—defined as “occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short timeframe” (Thompson et al. 2011)—have been identified as one of the most important levers for lifestyle change (House of Lords 2011; Capstick et al. 2014). Research shows that disruptions—whether concerning a person’s life-course (e.g., moving home) or structural (e.g., economic downturn, extreme weather events)—can provide opportunities to recraft social practices in new directions (Verplanken et al. 2018; Birkmann et al. 2010), for example shifting from commuting by car to home-working (Marsden et al. 2020). Furthermore, interventions targeted to moments of change are more effective than at other times (Verplanken et al. 2018). Several studies show that mobility interventions are more effective when targeted to relocation (Thøgersen 2012; Ralph and Brown 2017; Bamberg 2006). Other low-carbon behaviours, such as energy efficiency and wasted reduction measures, have also been shown to be more effectively changed using low-cost interventions in the twelve weeks following relocation (Verplanken and Roy 2016; Maréchal 2010), as well as at other moments of change, such as buying an electric vehicle (Nicolson et al. 2017). Other such opportunities to intervene include temporal milestones (e.g., New Year, becoming an adult), having a child, retiring, infrastructure disruption (e.g., road closures), and COVID-19 (e.g., Verplanken et al. 2018; Burningham & Venn 2020).

10COVID-19 and measures to respond to it may be the most significant disruption to lifestyles since World War II. Citizens are working, consuming and interacting in new ways, some of which may be more desirable both personally and environmentally (e.g., commuting less). For example, one UK study (Whitmarsh et al. 2020) found that during lockdown: online food shopping more than doubled; food waste and consumption of energy and goods reduced; working from home rose significantly and most people found this a positive experience. In line with this, around a third said they intend to increase the amount they work from home (compared to pre-lockdown) once restrictions are removed, and even more plan to socialise more online (43 %) and to fly less on holidays (47 %). Importantly, of course, intentions do not always manifest in behaviour change (Whitmarsh 2009). Since new habits take two to three months to form (Lally et al. 2010), lockdown periods in most countries have been long enough to establish new routines. However, when lockdowns are lifted, there is a risk of recidivism into pre-existing habits (Carden and Wood 2018), particularly if economic stimulus measures promote unfettered, high-carbon consumption (Peters 2020). So, while COVID-19 may represent a unique window of opportunity to promote low-carbon lifestyles, this is only likely to occur with appropriate infrastructure, incentives, and norms to encourage and lock in new low-carbon routines. Fortunately, there is strong public support for net zero policies (e.g., shifting to low-carbon transport; reducing red meat consumption) and a green recovery (CAUK 2020; Whitmarsh et al. 2020), which provides a mandate for policy-makers to take bold climate change measures to establish and lock in low-carbon habits.


11Public engagement in decision-making and action is essential for radical societal transformation to address climate change. While public support for climate action has grown in recent years, demand-side emission reductions lag far behind supply-side reductions, highlighting the need to focus efforts on achieving society-wide behavioural change (CCC 2019). Much can be learnt on how to engage the public with climate change from COVID-19; however, there are unique challenges associated with climate change that make it a “different kind of crisis” (Howarth et al. 2020). Although the pandemic has shown that measures to change behaviour and society can be taken rapidly, we require a social mandate for such radical interventions to be implemented for the longer term, for example via further deliberative democratic opportunities and a coherent national conversation on climate change. COVID-19 as a ‘moment of change’ has also created many low-carbon habits that could be locked in with the right policy measures, such as reallocating road space from cars to active and public modes, economic (dis) incentives to promote consumption of low-carbon products and services, and support for businesses to encourage more flexible working and teleconferencing (e.g., Cairns et al. 2002; Henderson and Mokhtarian 1996; Capstick et al. 2014; CAUK 2020). Embarking on a green economic recovery from COVID-19 requires using the insights outlined here on how to engage the public to achieve a low-carbon societal transformation.



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Professor in Environmental Psychology, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport, based in the Department of Psychology, University of Bath. She is Director of the ESRC-funded UK Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). She regularly advises governmental and other organisations on low-carbon behaviour change and climate change communication, and is Lead Author for IPCC’s Working Group II Sixth Assessment Report. Her research projects have included studies of energy efficiency behaviours, waste reduction and carrier bag reuse, perceptions of smart technologies and electric vehicles, low-carbon lifestyles, and responses to climate change.

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