Putting people at the heart of efforts to tackle climate change

by Lorraine Whitmarsh

There have been stark warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the UK Committee on Climate Change that rapid, society-wide decarbonisation is needed, and that we need to work harder if we are to avoid devastating climate change.

We may have as little as a decade in which to significantly cut emissions, and doing this will require fresh thinking. So far, emission cuts have mostly been achieved by changing electricity supply. But if we’re going to tackle demand – and particularly in high-impact but challenging areas like food, transport, heating, and material consumption – we can’t do this by technological change alone. We can only do this by transforming the way we live our lives, challenging norms, and reconfiguring organisations and cities.

This means there is a critical need for social scientists to develop new insights on behaviour change, community action, organisational change, and policy innovation, and to work together with other disciplines and with societal actors to apply these insights in order to help deliver a low-carbon, sustainable society.

To address this pressing need, a new ESRC-funded centre – the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST), is launching next week (1 May). CAST is a collaboration between Cardiff, Manchester, East Anglia, and York Universities and the charity Climate Outreach, and will be the first centre to place people at the heart of the fundamental transformation required to tackle climate change. The question at the heart of our work is: how can we as a society live differently – and better – in ways that meet the need for rapid and far-reaching emission reductions?

People as agents of change

CAST is distinct in its approach by focusing on people as agents of change. People can act in different ways – individually and collectively. We want to understand how people can participate in transformation in their multiple roles as citizens, consumers, parents, employees, business leaders, policymakers. This means recognising that people can act both directly to reduce emissions – like driving less – but equally have the ability to shape wider structural change.

Crucially, we can’t impose solutions on people; we know from the gilets jaunes, fuel duty and other protests that this won’t work. We need to start from where people are now and work closely with them to create and test out bold visions of the society we want. Mobilising people requires understanding how their values translate into both action and inaction.

Designing low-carbon measures based on these values means focusing on their co-benefits, like cleaner air, lower bills, more resilient or fairer communities. It also requires getting the timing right: understanding when, as well as how, to intervene. Research shows that disruption at various levels – for example, moving house, extreme weather events, change of government – presents windows of opportunity to more effectively change behaviour or policies. We need to target interventions to circumstances when individuals and institutions are more open to change.

school-strike-4-climate-4057683_1920

Learning from others

Our centre also includes a strong comparative focus. There are two elements here: first, transferring learning from other fields, like health, to climate change (what can we learn from previous shifts in societal attitudes and behaviours, like in relation to smoking); and second, learning from international as well as UK examples; including developing and developed economies where there’s both innovation in areas like food and mobility, and very different societal contexts. This will help us understand how we can live differently, as well as sharing lessons from the centre with other countries.

Helping society to tackle climate change

We aim to create a new infrastructure for engagement, and transformation test beds for addressing climate change. This means trialling fresh approaches to bring about low-carbon, sustainable change at all levels of society, targeted at the challenging areas of mobility, food, thermal comfort, and consumption. CAST will develop new theoretical insights on transformative societal change, that articulate ways for people to participate in transformation, and how targeting interventions to co-benefits and windows of opportunity may accelerate transformation.

We will pioneer new methods of researching transformation, including for co-producing knowledge, for example through citizens panels; using more open research practices; and working in more interdisciplinary ways to synthesise evidence.

Finally, we aim to develop societal capacity to tackle climate change, including a new cohort of interdisciplinary social scientists who are at the cutting edge of transformation theory and methods; reflexive about their own role in this; and skilled in working with a range of stakeholders to bring about change.


whitmarsh 150Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh is an environmental psychologist, specialising in perceptions and behaviour in relation to climate change, energy and transport, based in the School of Psychology, Cardiff University.

From May 2019, she will take up the role of director of the new 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. 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.


This year we are using the #ESRCBetterLives hashtag to highlight outstanding social science research and show how social science is relevant to everyone. Our Better Lives theme for April is ‘environmental change’. Watch out for our tweets and tell us about research that has inspired you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.