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Concern about climate change has gone up, not down, during Covid-19 pandemic

By Adam Corner on August 10, 2020

Alternative transportation during covid 19 pandemic

New briefing paper from the Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) Centre shows how Covid-19 has impacted climate attitudes and changed behaviours in the UK.

In a few months, the global spread of Covid-19 has disrupted and upended almost everything.

The parallels (and differences) between Covid-19 and climate change were clear from the start. Both global-scale emergencies, but with very different ‘risk signatures’, the policy and behavioural response to the threat of Covid-19 was sudden, stark and intended to be temporary. Our response to climate change has been frustratingly slow, but must be grounded in a deep rooted social mandate if it is to last decades rather than months. 

An unintended side effect of the lockdown policies enacted around the world was a sharp, unprecedented drop in carbon emissions. As transport networks ground to a halt, retail and hospitality sectors closed almost entirely, schools shut and commuters stayed home, a profoundly different daily routine was suddenly ushered into existence. 

Now, as countries reignite their economies, there are widespread calls to build back ‘better’ (in terms of making the recovery from Covid-19 a green one). 

On a personal/community level, there are hopes that the changes in city transport infrastructure (e.g. more bike lanes and wider pavements) might catalyse low-carbon travel behaviours, and that people might want to continue some aspects of their lockdown lives (e.g. working from home more often – also a significant lower carbon activity). 

But there have also been concerns that an understandable preoccupation with Covid-19 would capture public attention so completely that the hard-fought momentum in public opinion on climate change in 2019 would be undone. 

People are are even more concerned about climate change than they were in 2019

So how is Covid-19 impacting climate attitudes and behaviours in the UK? A new briefing paper based on two nationally representative surveys paints a fascinating picture. It is from the Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) center, in which Climate Outreach is a core partner. 

Strikingly, the new data reported in the CAST briefing paper shows concern about climate change has gone up, not down, during the Covid-19 outbreak so far in the UK. The percentage of people agreeing that climate change requires a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ level of priority has risen since 2019 – and given that 2019 was already a high water mark for levels of public concern, this is an encouraging signal.

If indeed there is a ‘finite pool of worry’ which defines the issues that receive public attention at any given time, then thankfully this pool currently seems big enough to accommodate Covid-19 and climate change. 

As the economic impacts of lockdown policies start to really bite, the challenge will be ensuring that people buy in to the green recovery, across the whole of society, and don’t start to see climate policies in opposition to jobs or prosperity.  

People intend to continue some significant low-carbon behaviours – but reduce others

Although lockdown has certainly not been experienced in a universally positive way (and has exacerbated many existing inequalities such as the domestic care burden for women), some behaviour changes were consistently noted by survey participants as worth maintaining. 

For most people, working from home during lockdown was seen as a positive experience, and as a result more people intended to work more from home after lockdown than they did prior to lockdown. 

Also encouragingly, from a climate change perspective, more people indicated that they intended to reduce the amount they fly for holiday or leisure purposes (47%) post-lockdown, than intended to increase it (8.3%) or to maintain pre-lockdown levels (44.7%). 

Perhaps less encouragingly, 52% intended to use public transport less after lockdown compared to before, whereas only 4.9% intended to increase public transport use (and 43.1% said they would not change how much they used it).

The CAST research also pointed to reduced food waste during the lockdown period, and a small – but detectable – reduction in the amount of meat consumed.

It’s too early to say if these changes will last – but they are positive foundations for change

Psychological research suggests that new habits take 2-3 months to form, which means that the lockdown period in most countries is long enough to establish new, enduring routines. However, there is a question about the longevity of changes that were ‘imposed’ rather than ‘requested’, and when the lockdown is lifted, ‘old habits’ may creep back in again. 

The right infrastructure to lock in behaviour changes is critical – for example cities which make swift, sweeping changes to allow safe walking and cycling may mitigate the negative impact on carbon emissions of people feeling less confident about public transport. But as well as the removal of physical barriers, keeping the behavioural momentum going and pushing the social mandate for change forward is an equally important focus for campaigners. 

The Covid-19 pandemic still has a long way to run – and in many important ways, the economic impact of lockdown policies may yet prove more decisive than the period of lockdown itself for if and how low-carbon behaviours are ‘locked in’.  

But the story we can tell ourselves about lifestyle change now includes a critical new piece of ‘social proof’ that was universally experienced: we can make fast, far-reaching changes and self monitor them through widely shared social norms when we put our minds to it. 

What’s now clear is that the ‘system’ doesn’t change without people changing with (and within) it: they are two sides of the same coin. As wider research makes abundantly clear, most people don’t want to go ‘back to normal’, and the findings in this latest CAST briefing paper suggest that some positive low-carbon changes could be here to stay. 

Climate Outreach and the CAST centre are leading a team of authors to write a chapter for the next United Nations Emissions Gap report, making the case for how social practices and lifestyle changes can become systemic changes. This work is kindly supported by the KR Foundation.

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3 responses to Concern about climate change has gone up, not down, during Covid-19 pandemic

  1. Jaxon Thomas says: says:

    Thoughtful analysis. People really worried about the climate or the environmental changes during a pandemic. But yes due to the pandemic our environment gets a little bit of relief from pollution.

  2. Alex at Our Endangered World says: says:

    its nice to say that our environment just chillout during this pandemic time .

  3. Tina Fawcett says: says:

    Very nice piece of research and great blog. Thoughtful analysis with helpful indications on how to maintain and build on environmentally & socially beneficial behaviour changes. Good to read something positive. Thanks!

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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