Two people wearing face coverings, standing in front of an escalator

All crises are not made equal: what does Covid19 tell us about the public’s capacity to change behaviour?

17 July, 2020

Jillian Anable

Reading time: 5 minutes

Is the public really ready for radical change? Jillian Anable shares her thoughts on the differences between Covid19 and the climate crisis.

The theme of the annual Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP) conference on 15 July 2020 was ‘Reset’: driving the green recovery’. Polling of 600+ delegates found that a big majority agree “now is the moment for a reset in terms of decarbonising UK transport” and that “the public are ready for a change”.

I certainly agree with the call for a ‘reset’. If it takes this new crisis to succeed where multiple environmental crises have failed, then I will take it. But, resetting transport does not just mean a bit more walking, cycling and Zooming. Others and myself have written on this already, for example The future of transport after Covid 19: Everything has changed. Nothing has changed and A New Green Shovel? Options for the transport stimulus package. Suffice to repeat right now that a true reset requires changes to the fundamental beliefs and values that underpin decision making in the sector. These include appraisal methodologies, unwavering assumptions that growth in travel demand is inevitable, approaches to pricing and revenue raising, and the naïve understanding of what mobility is for that leads to a belief that transport problems are solved by transport-system solutions.

I disagree, however, with unfounded claims that the public is ready for more change. The positivity reflected in this idea links to the already well-worn claim that Covid19 has proven just how quickly behaviour can change and that we have the capacity and the willingness to do so. This is quickly followed by a sense of how this bodes well for more stringent action to tackle climate change.

Covid19, climate change – what’s the difference?

But, all crises are not made equal. Covid19 has many characteristics that have long been recognised as crucially absent from the climate change imperative. Here is my starter for 10.

Covid19…

  1. … represents an immediate threat, not one which is still (conveniently) seen by many as some way into the future and is reinforced through distant target-setting by policy makers;
  2. … is a clear risk to wealthy western economies, not one which is often (conveniently) seen by many here as geographically far away;
  3. … is accepted as an immediate threat in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, and is not being refuted by big business or world leaders (… at least not without swift proof to the contrary);
  4. … has involved the science being foregrounded by policy makers to legitimise their actions. Climate scientists can only dream of such a thing;
  5. … has not yet involved ubiquitous blaming and shaming of individual actions for its origins thereby avoiding widespread cognitive dissonance, denial and non-compliant behaviour;
  6. … has commanded a policy response with repeated instructions – i.e. the opposite of ‘nudge’. Let’s not quibble about mistakes that have been made in the clarity of various messages. The point is, people have been told what to do and this has applied to everyone;
  7. … involves a clear line between individual actions and outcomes. Washing your hands and staying away from people who are infected are accepted and achievable mitigating actions;
  8. …fosters a sense of common purpose, even globally (although admittedly there is much room for improvement);
  9. … is believed to be time limited so that people accept any inconveniences much more easily as they will not need to be permanent (even though they might end up so).
  10. … efforts and losses are being recognised and in some ways compensated for.

This list of marked differences between the processes of behaviour change involved in Covid19 and the climate crisis, is stating the bleedin’ obvious. So why are grand claims about a newly-proven ability and readiness to change now being sprinkled so liberally all over the decarbonisation debate? It is of course reasonable to speculate about some extremely relevant and important shifts in the public psyche. The direct and immediate impacts we have experienced on everyday freedoms seems likely to have led to a questioning of taken-for-granted lifestyles, including hypermobility. It surely must have opened the eyes of us all to the role of government and its ability to intervene in our lives in the name of keeping us safe.

Behavioural change

The key question is the extent to which we will continue to blindly leap from speculating about these nascent and contingent changes, to assumptions about a readiness to change to avert a climate emergency? If and when the behavioural changes that have taken place so far prove to be short lived, or tolerance for restrictions in the name of environmental causes are resisted, the next natural leap will be to the familiar accusation of individuals as ‘consumers’ still being the problem with their selfish and irrational ways.

Yet, the climate emergency involves systemic changes in production and consumption that are far removed from this focus on individual agency and blame. Covid19 has provided much valuable learning on the production side. For example, knowledge and accountability of supply chains, exposure of the role of public transport as an essential public service and the value of local connectivity, to name but a few. On the consumption side, I suggest there is a very important task ahead to delve deeply into the values, meanings and expectations that this crisis has shaken up so that we can build a fresh conversation about our approach to risk, science-led policy, responsibility, trust and resilience. Only then can we hope to have not “wasted a good crisis” as we flounder around trying to solve another.

Banner photo credit: Bechir Kaddech on Unsplash

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