Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). The AR6 Synthesis Report underscores the escalating severity of the climate crisis but also highlights the broad range of available policy measures that could bring about deep emissions cuts and enhance climate resilience if scaled up and implemented widely. We asked Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE (University of Bath) to share her thoughts on the latest IPCC report and its policy implications. Professor Whitmarsh is an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy, and transport. She is Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) and was one of the Lead Authors for the AR6 Working Group II Report.
For you, what stands out as the key overall message of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report?
For me, the latest IPCC report stresses the seriousness of the situation – but also gives a strong message of hope. On the one hand, it reinforces the extremely urgent need for radical and deep emission cuts across all areas of society. We face an existential threat. Behaviour change, as well as technological change, will be essential to tackle it. It’s clear that our current policies are way off delivering these changes. Yet, if we act now, we have a small window of opportunity not only to ensure we have a safe world for our children to live in but also to reap the wider short-term benefits of acting, such as lower energy bills, improved health and wellbeing, energy and food security, and stronger communities. Tackling climate change is not about making sacrifices to our way of life – but actually improving it in ways that really matter to people. Our research shows this too – surveys conducted in a range of rich and poor countries showed that people who lead greener lifestyles are happier. Similarly, solutions to climate change can also help with the cost-of-living crisis and address energy security concerns, notably insulating homes and using home-grown renewable energy.
Beyond technological change, we need to see profound and long-lasting changes in behaviour to tackle the climate crisis. However, discussions often seem to focus on relatively small and incremental steps driven by changes in personal motivation. How can we move towards a more comprehensive understanding of behavioural change and what policies could support this?
Yes, in fact, the House of Lords inquiry on behaviour change for climate, for which I was a specialist advisor, found very clearly that the government’s approach is ‘seriously inadequate’. Policy-makers are apparently reluctant to encourage and enable the scale of lifestyle change needed to reach our carbon targets and reduce climate risks, partly for ideological reasons but also because they assume the public wouldn’t support it. But they’re wrong. Our surveys show that the public do support most net zero policies which would involve significant behaviour change, such as changing diets and travel choices. These policies include frequent flyer levies, changing product pricing to reflect environmental impacts, creating low-traffic neighbourhoods, and phasing out polluting technologies. These policies would make it cheaper and easier to make low-carbon choices, removing the barriers that people who want to help tackle climate change currently face.
How can IPCC reports be most effectively communicated to the wider public? Is there a danger that people are becoming ‘desensitised’ to the climate crisis or simply too overwhelmed by more immediate challenges – and how may we be able to overcome such psychological barriers to action?
Our research has shown that while climate anxiety is not widespread amongst the public, it is linked to media reporting of climate change which often focusses on the devastating impacts but less on the solutions. People may choose to ignore this bad news or just not know how to respond constructively. While it is important to raise awareness of the severity of the issue – and IPCC reports that bring together the latest scientific evidence are a key part of doing this – it's also crucial to show people what solutions exist and what role they can play as individuals and collectively. We can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint (such as reducing flying and driving, eating less red meat and dairy, saving energy, and reusing and repairing things) but we can also influence others in lots of ways, from writing to our MP, to calling on our employers to take more action, to simply having a conversation with friends or neighbours about actions we’re taking which can create new social norms. Doing these things can help bring about the wider changes needed across society to achieve a low-carbon and safer future for everyone.