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Being green in the UK: why we need a better understanding of the relationship between climate concern, behaviours and wellbeing

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 April 2023

Person wearing gardening gloves picking up discarded plastic bottle among other plastic litter on dry brown grass.

Litter picking. Credit: lovelyday12 via Adobe Stock.

by Lisa Fridkin, Neil Kaye, Katie Quy.

Much media attention is given to climate change denial and arguments over the impacts of human-driven climate change, as well as the actions of protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Meanwhile, the latest scientific reports offer a further stark warning on climate change, and call for top-down leadership to tackle the climate crisis with greater urgency. Data indicate that, in a broad sense, the British public is on board, with three-in-four Britons now saying they are worried about climate change, and many reporting they feel the UK government is failing in its duty to act.

But beyond these polls, what more do we know about people’s levels of concern or their engagement in ‘pro-environmental behaviours’ (PEBs) to help address climate change? And why is this important? As with uncertainty more generally, eco-anxiety is recognized as having significant negative effects, particularly for younger age groups. However, whilst it is undesirable in many respects, there are also reports that eco-anxiety may be an important precursor to PEBs. Moreover, participating in PEBs might in turn be beneficial for eudaimonic wellbeing, even if this is driven by anxiety over climate change.

Existing data provide some important insights, but not yet the whole picture. Below, we set out how, by asking the right questions, social research can assist in better understanding public attitudes and the complex relationship between concern, action and wellbeing, in support of more effective policy intervention.

So how concerned are we really? Patterns and gaps

To explore these issues, we drew on the Understanding Society dataset, a random sample of approximately 40,000 UK households, tracked over time. We analysed data across three waves – 2011, 2014 and 2020 – to address the following questions:

  •     Who is most concerned about the climate crisis?
  •     How has this changed in recent years?
  •     Who engages in which pro-environmental behaviours?
  •     What are the impacts on wellbeing for these groups?

Our initial findings are presented in this Climate Change in the UK infographic.

To pick out some of the headlines: the data show a steady increase over time in those who report feeling highly concerned about climate change, regardless of gender, education level or age. The sharpest rises are among those under 30 and those with the highest level of qualification. More than half of those reporting as ‘most concerned’ were not parents, perhaps indicating life stage or reflecting a reported conscious decision not to have children due to climate concern.

There have also been significant changes since 2011 in what we might term ‘pro-environmental attitudes’. Most people no longer see a ‘green’ lifestyle as extreme. There have also been increases in both wanting to be and seeing one’s own lifestyle as environmentally friendly.

Yet, when we delve deeper into the data in question, to look at actual behaviours and the drivers behind them, the patterns are much less straightforward. There is not always a direct link between PEBs and climate concern. Relatedly, nor is there a clear link between PEBs and wellbeing as per that suggested in the aforementioned literature. Those reporting ostensible PEBs, particularly switching off lights, turning off taps, and buying recycled products, did not necessarily see these behaviours as ‘green’ per se, though they also scored highest on wellbeing. A number of other behaviours that are ‘pro-environmental’ showed very limited associations with wellbeing, including car sharing, cycling instead of driving, and recycling.

Accordingly, whilst these data help our understanding of how responses in these areas have changed over time, they also highlight issues around which questions we ask and how we might develop greater and more meaningful insights.

Pathways forward

Understanding who is concerned about climate change, the behaviours this translates into and the effect on wellbeing is vital if we are to effectively target support to adapt, both in terms of encouraging PEBs and alleviating the impact of high levels of climate concern on individual wellbeing. As the effects of climate change are felt more and more in the UK, impacts on mental health are something we should prepare for as a society alongside physical and practical adaptations.

As a first step, there is a clear need for a unified definition of what we mean by pro-environmental behaviour. This also needs to be responsive to shifts over time in what is perceived as a PEB, as opposed to, on the one hand, relatively extreme or fringe behaviour (e.g. as a ‘green lifestyle’ or climate activism might once have been seen by some), or, on the other, just a ‘new normal’ (e.g. as switching off lights may increasingly come to be seen). Equally, data collection needs to get beneath the motivations behind both individual behaviour and collective action. Do actions such as ‘switching off lights’ truly capture lifestyle adaptations that reflect a green approach? Or are they instead driven by, say, economic factors, and even more so in some age groups? This would offer one explanation for the disharmony in some of our findings, where those who are purportedly less concerned about the environment are also those with highest levels of so-called environmentally friendly behaviour.

Additional insights like this would take forward our understanding considerably and in doing so help inform public policy and foster individual approaches that are better for both our mental health and the planet.

#climatecrisis #climateconcern #pro-environmentalbehaviour #wellbeing

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