A new paper draws lessons from COVID-19 for the fight against climate change, arguing that people are willing to change their behaviour as long as there is a clear social mandate. Candice Howarth summarises the analysis.

There has been an abundance of commentary on the lessons for climate change action that can be learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some call for better infrastructure to make more room for pedestrians and facilitate safe, low-emissions travelling while maintaining social distancing; others for green investment to underpin the post-COVID-19 recovery and that this finance must be just and delivering positive social impact, resilient to external shocks, rooted in local places and responsive to individual and institutional needs so that the recovery is sustainable.

COVID-19 has also demonstrated that behaviours can change abruptly, but these changes come at a cost to welfare and the economy. We need the right policies in place, underpinned by a clear social mandate and public support to ensure the new behaviours endure into the long term. This applies, too, to the establishment of the changed behaviours that are needed to support climate action over the years ahead.

With COVID-19 we have seen how quickly and effectively governments can intervene to completely reshape society and lifestyles; and that society in turn has largely been supportive of this. However, climate change and the pandemic are different: while the threat of COVID-19 is immediate and direct, the impacts of climate change are longer term and more diffuse. Driven by necessity, the global response to COVID-19 has been radical and swift; in contrast, climate change requires a more carefully planned and calibrated, inclusive, less disruptive and more sustained response, albeit with more sense of urgency than there has been to date. And this response must be co-designed with society.

The pandemic has caused misery, loss and hardship across the world, another reason why the response to it should not be seen as a model for climate action. Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis has not necessarily changed things for climate change action; similar measures to those imposed in order to restrict the spread of the disease may not be accepted for climate. However, cleaner air, less traffic, a less frantic pace of life and a less wasteful relationship with food are seen as positive side-effects of lockdown policies. There may be opportunities to bed-in and maintain certain types of behaviour changes that would be positive low-carbon steps.

Engaging citizens to build a social mandate

The fundamental question about society’s role in co-designing climate action requires an exchange between citizens and state.

In our recently published paper we suggest that engagement mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies and juries could be a powerful way to build a social mandate for climate action as the world shapes the post-COVID-19 era. Citizens’ assemblies and juries (such as those recently conducted locally in Oxford and Leeds, and nationally in the UK and France) could enable citizens to co-design climate action, by encouraging more deliberative processes and communication, involving citizens throughout the policy development and implementation process.

These deliberative democratic processes with citizens’ input at their core can help design solutions and can increase public trust and inclusion in their design and delivery and any conditions (behavioural or other) that are required. Citizen juries and assemblies can focus on a number of topics. For climate change, through a series of interactive meetings, a group of people are brought together and taught about climate change and what can be done to address it. Together as a group these participants then formulate a series of recommendations about what they think should happen. They are a structured way of equipping citizens with a coherent and robust narrative on climate change, supporting citizens to imagine different ways of living and giving politicians the mandate to take action. They make society a co-designer of climate action rather than having solutions imposed on them and therefore more likely to respond favourably to those solutions. 

Moving on from the lessons of COVID-19

The global response to COVID-19 has had environmental side effects that the climate community has aspired to achieve over a number of decades: reduced carbon emissions, cleaner air, less noise, more space for nature. However, these benefits have been achieved at a massive cost to welfare and the economy. COVID-19 has increased our awareness of how vulnerable we can be in the face of global phenomena, and how without foresight and planning we are left ill-prepared. We must leverage this fresh appreciation to promote a lasting move towards low-carbon behaviour. 

Keep in touch with the Grantham Research Institute at LSE
Sign up to our newsletters and get the latest analysis, research, commentary and details of upcoming events.