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Climate inaction undermines public support for lifestyle changes

25 June 2024

People shopping at farmers market

New research into the public perception of climate change initiatives finds that whilst there is strong support for low-carbon lifestyles, inaction is limiting public beliefs that a low-carbon future is possible.

The new study by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations found that political and media debate that justifies inadequate mitigation efforts for climate change – termed ‘discourses of delay’ - is drastically impacting public perception in the UK.

Dr Catherine Cherry, Cardiff University’s School of Psychology and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, said: “With global temperatures continuing to rise, limiting warming to as close to 1.5°C as possible represents an enormous challenge, requiring a wholescale transformation across every sector of society. We urgently need to find new ways of living."

Arguments that seek to delay climate action and justify inadequate mitigation efforts, often termed ‘discourses of delay’, are widespread within political and media debate on climate change.
Dr Catherine Cherry Research Associate

The researchers set out to understand public perception of climate action, engaging with members of the public across Manchester, Aberdeen and the South-West of England, between December 2020 and January 2021.

They found that the public currently have overconfidence in current actions, influenced by long-standing environmental messages – leading them to believe that small personal actions are sufficient and provides false reassurance.

The public was also found to be defensive over radical change, including reduced meat consumption or flying less, leading to opposition to the most radical lifestyle changes, fuelled by concerns over personal freedom and fairness.

A sense of hopelessness was also found, convincing individuals that meaningful change is impossible.

We found that despite strong public support for many low-carbon lifestyle strategies, delay and inaction are limiting beliefs that a fair, low-carbon future is even possible. We argue that countering these narratives, and the defensive responses they invoke, is essential for achieving meaningful public action on climate change.
Dr Catherine Cherry Research Associate

The researchers call for a new approach to public engagement that goes beyond simple information provision.

“We suggest involving the public in co-creating positive and fair visions of a sustainable future through deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies. This could help build a public mandate for climate policies and foster a sense of climate citizenship, weakening the discourse of delay."

This research, and research like this, is vital in an ever-changing and fast-moving media and political landscape. We need to understand public opinion on a topic as crucial as sustainable futures more generally, but this is especially compounded during elections and political campaigning.
Dr Catherine Cherry Research Associate

"By understanding how 'discourses of delay' impact the public's investment in a more sustainable future, we can then focus on messaging from political and media debate to ensure that everyone - from politicians to the general public - invest in climate action,” added Dr Cherry.

The research, Discourses of climate inaction undermine public support for 1.5 °C lifestyles, was published in Global Environmental Change.