5 key messages from five years of CAST research: Why and how to put people at the heart of climate action

This short animation, produced by Motion Manor, provides a summary of key insights and recommendations based on our key messages report. Illustrations in our report were also produced by the team.

Words by Bella Zanin (Knowledge Exchange Associate) & Dr Caroline Verfuerth (Knowledge Exchange & Research Associate)

A new CAST report highlights the importance of putting people at the heart of climate change action and reveals how policymakers and practitioners can better engage people with climate initiatives.

Have you ever baulked at the price of a train ticket? Or opted for the car because it was more convenient than using the bus or bike? Maybe you had a beef burger because there weren’t any vegetarian options on the menu? You’re not alone.  

Most people in the UK want climate action. We are aware of the urgent need to tackle climate change and we’re willing to make sustainable choices. We want to be part of the solution. But changing habits and lifestyles can be difficult. And it often seems that politicians and businesses aren’t doing their part.  

One thing is clear: individual behaviours and new technologies alone will not get us to where we need to be. We need systemic, society-wide change, in the form of fair climate policies and strong leadership, that puts people at the centre of climate action. 

That’s the conclusion of CAST’s latest report, ‘Catalysts of Change: People at the Heart of Climate Transformations. Drawing on five years of CAST research conducted in collaboration with policymakers, local authorities, charities, businesses and community groups, the report synthesises key learnings and sheds light on how we can achieve the social changes needed to tackle climate change.  

The report provides useful insights and recommendations for policymakers and practitioners working towards emissions reductions and net zero targets.

The main takeaway – We need to see people as agents of change

Our new CAST report is clear: people are essential in the fight against climate change. We will not achieve rapid emissions reductions without the support and cooperation of individuals across diverse contexts and roles.  

The good news is most people are already on board. In fact, concern for climate change has remained high, despite Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis. There is widespread support for climate initiatives. Now we need to leverage that support into action.  

How do we do that? Through people-centred climate policies. The evidence shows that government policies are the most important factor driving and/or inhibiting a social transformations – broad, deep and rapid changes to society towards low-carbon living. Policies that consider the needs, attitudes and values of individuals, in all their diversity, are more successful and reduce backlash.  

CAST’s research emphasises that climate policies should be fair and accessible, enable freedom of choice, deliver non-environmental benefits and consider people’s existing priorities. Climate policies should be developed through diverse public engagement and implemented across multiple sectors, contexts and scales.  

Additionally, Governments must deliver strong leadership – by providing a clear climate strategy and proper resources, and by operating in line with their net zero ambitions.  

CAST’s five key messages 

Key Message 1 – People  

The first key message from CAST’s initial phase of research is that we must “put people at the heart of climate action”. Building a more sustainable society requires individuals to make lifestyle changes and adopt new technologies and systems. Therefore, public buy-in and cooperation are critical. This is especially true in hard-to-decarbonise areas such as food, transport, material consumption and heating/cooling. 

Engaging with a diverse range of stakeholders through public discussions, pilot projects and existing grassroots initiatives can accelerate rapid and fair change. 

Key Message 2 – Support  

CAST research explored preferences for low-carbon lifestyles through deliberative workshops and tracked public perceptions of climate change in the UK, Sweden, China and Brazil.  Workshops revealed three key factors central to low-carbon lifestyles: (1) the importance of co-benefits, (2) conditions for acceptance, and (3) the significance of social norms.  

Surveys with nationally representative samples asked questions like “how serious a threat is climate change to your family and your country?” and “which climate solutions are most effective?”. You can see the results, filtering by age, gender and financial stability, on the CAST Data Portal

The key takeaway is that there is “conditional public support for decisive action on climate change”. Support is stronger for climate action that is fair (e.g. frequent flyer tax), retains freedom of choice (e.g. incentives for rail travel, rather than bans on flying), delivers non-environmental co-benefits (e.g. reducing pollution to improve health), and has proper government support (e.g. funding to upgrade home heating). 

Dr Catherine Cherry, Research Associate and Project Lead at Cardiff University, commented: “Our deliberative public visioning work has shown that a shared vision of a low-carbon future is not only possible, but publicly desirable.

However, a successful transformation to a socially acceptable, low-carbon future can only happen if we take account of needs and desires at the local, as well as national, level. 

We argue that the Government now needs to implement an ambitious public engagement programme to begin an ongoing public conversation about our future low-carbon lifestyles and bring people into the heart of climate decision making.”

To find out more about this work, check out our recently published report “Social visions for a low-carbon future”. 

Key Message 3 – Inclusion 

Another important insight asserts that “transformative change should embrace diverse perspectives and break down systemic barriers”. In other words, climate policy should consider how differences and inequalities affect people’s abilities to live sustainably.  

Low-carbon choices should be practical, convenient, cheap and socially acceptable. Initiatives should connect with things people already care about (e.g. being healthy, looking after family) and coincide with moments at which people are particularly open to change (e.g. when moving house or having a child). 

Dr Angela Mae Minas, Research Fellow and Project Lead at the University of Manchester, explained:  

“Climate change affects different people in different ways, and so, responses to it should consider that our gender, race and ethnicity, location, income, personal circumstances (e.g., caring responsibilities) and privileges impact our capacities for change. People therefore need different kinds of support to adopt low carbon lifestyles. 

“For example, our work with a community-led initiative showed us how transport choices fit with everyday life. Residents were interested in reducing car use, but to effectively encourage active travel, they needed policy support and action from local authorities so that they can have safe cycle lanes and cheap public transportation options. 

“It is important to understand that what is possible and convenient varies, because our social, cultural, and material contexts shape our everyday practices. Policies and programmes that encourage lifestyle changes must consider these contexts and differences; otherwise, there is a risk of exacerbating inequalities where low carbon options are only afforded to a few.”

Key Message 4 – Collaboration  

CAST’s report underscores that “action across all levels of society and in all sectors is needed to drive impactful societal change”. People can contribute to climate action through various roles – for example, as citizens, consumers, parents, employees and community leaders. Climate initiatives should tap into these different identities and enable collaboration between changemakers across areas and scales. 

Highlighting the positive takeaway of CAST’s research, Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE, CAST Director, said: “It can often feel hard to take action on climate change when we focus only on our own carbon footprints – it may be more expensive or inconvenient to make low-carbon choices, for example. But when we think beyond our role as consumers to being citizens, parents, friends, members of interest groups, and employees – there is also scope for us all to influence wider society, by shaping norms, using our voice, and working with others to make change happen. This is a really empowering message from our work!”

Key Message 5 – Leadership

Finally, CAST calls for “clear leadership at all levels” to shape the frameworks we need for system change. Governments must provide clear and effective goals, plans, information and resources to drive action, build trust, legitimise change and foster collective engagement.  

Interviews revealed that most MPs recognise the need for climate action. However, they are held back by narratives of delay (e.g. “climate action is too expensive”) in political and media circles. CAST highlights the important role that individuals, charities and academics can play in urging policymakers to act in line with the robust scientific evidence on climate change.

What’s next?

CAST’s Key Messages Report is a vital resource for people involved in policy, business, charity projects, community groups and the media. It illuminates the importance of people-centred climate policy and provides actionable steps to better engage the public with climate solutions. 

The report “is a timely contribution”, says Baroness Kate Parminter, “to encourage the right policies and approaches to deliver urgent climate action”. 

For key social science insights on climate action, read the full report and watch the summary animation. For further information about public perceptions of climate change, visit the CAST Data Portal. 

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