Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

“There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing”

– James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

With parliament set for a symbolically important opposition day debate on proposals for a third runway today, a question that I have been asking myself is ‘how will the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport impact on the public’s response to climate change?’ A colleague was asked a simple question by a cab driver that cuts to the heart of the issue that’s been troubling me: ‘How can Gordon Brown expect me to recycle when they’ve decided to build another bloody runway?’ I can imagine he is not the only person asking that question. If that’s the case, the Government’s decision on Heathrow spells disaster for the climate in whole range of ways.

heathrow5Over the past four or five years, climate change has passed a critical threshold in public awareness and political discourse. But the growing profile of the issue has not translated into an adequate, proactive response. Research by AccountAbility and Consumers International found that while at least 90 per cent of the public believes that climate change is caused by humans, statistics from a survey of UK consumers showed that only 7 per cent felt they could do something about it. Of that 7 per cent, only 3 per cent tried to live sustainably. The evidence is that the increase in awareness of the seriousness of climate change and increased sophistication in the scientific understanding of future physical, social cultural and economic impacts has not been reflected in policy or public action. While there are many reasons for this, the key factors are diminishing trust in government and the fact that consumers are locked-in to unsustainable consumption patterns.

Defra has spent millions on research trying to understand what really motivates pro-environmental behaviour. And it turns out it is not as simple as just telling people about climate change. There are many factors that determine whether someone will change their behaviour or not. An extensive review carried out by Professor Tim Jackson in 2005, identified two key themes that determine behaviour change:

The first relates to the symbolic role of consumer goods, which goes beyond their functional use. The symbolic role facilitates a range of complex, deeply engrained ‘social conversations’ about status, identity, social cohesion, group norms and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning. The second theme relates to the locking-in of consumers into unsustainable consumption patterns, which makes it difficult for consumers to make real choices about their consumption. Consumer ‘lock-in’ occurs in part through economic constraints (how much people have to spend), institutional barriers, inequalities in access, and restricted choice. But it also flows from habits, routines, social norms and expectations and dominant cultural values.

The research then goes on to suggest four key policy responses to combat these problems. One of which is leadership. For example, people assess the perceived priorities of government policy not only by what government says, but critically by what it does. The consistency or inconsistency of government actions can have a significant impact on the success of government initiatives designed to encourage people to take action that will reduce their environmental impact.

I am still doubtful that Heathrow’s third runway will ever be built. There are still a number of planning hoops that have to be jumped through and I doubt oil prices will stay as low as they are now for very long. It is worthing remembering that 24 airlines went bust when oil prices rose above $100 a barrel. But it is clear from Defra’s own research that the decision to press ahead with Heathrow has the potential to undo or at the very least stymie the public’s response to climate change. Whatever the outcome of the Commons vote today, it is clear that until the Government shows the vision and leadership to match the climate challenge they themselves admit we face, we are all less likely to change. And it shouldn’t take millions to work that out.