By Candice Howarth

16 July 2020


Candice Howarth talks about her recent paper in which she and her co-authors draw lessons from COVID-19 for the fight against climate change. They argue that people are willing to change their behaviour, as long as there is a clear social mandate.

There has been an abundance of commentary on what can be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic for climate change. Some call for better infrastructure to make more room for pedestrians and facilitate safe travelling while maintaining social distancing others, for green investment to underpin the post-COVID19 recovery and that this finance must be green, just, resilient, rooted and responsive.

COVID-19 has also demonstrated that behaviours can change abruptly, but these changes come at a cost, and we therefore need a ‘social mandate’ to ensure these changes remain in the long-term. By a social mandate, we mean a situation where society offers support to government (for example) to take action to protect our collective well-being, with the processes and the outcomes of this action being broadly accepted as being legitimate.

Climate change requires a more carefully planned and calibrated, inclusive, less disruptive and more sustained response than COVID-19, which must be co-designed with society. This would enable behavioural changes that improve wellbeing and underpin climate action over the years ahead.

Sustaining positive behaviour change

In our recently published paper we suggest that deliberative 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 its post-COVID-19 era. Citizen juries and assemblies could enable citizens to co-design climate action by encouraging more deliberative processes and communication and involving citizens throughout the policy development and implementation process.

The pandemic has caused misery, loss and hardship across the world, and should not be seen as a model for climate action. 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 the lockdown policies. Thus, there may be opportunities to bed-in and maintain certain types of behaviour changes that would be positive low-carbon steps.

Covid-19 and climate change

Our paper explores what responses to COVID-19 can tell us about what may and may not be possible or desirable in a transition to a net-zero future, and with the right policies some of the behaviour changes (e.g. reduced travel) that the lockdown has imposed might be sustained.

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, the global response to climate change, has lacked a sense of urgency. The COVID-19 crisis has not necessarily changed things for climate change; similar measures to those imposed in order to restrict the spread of the disease may not be accepted for climate.

Working with citizens

The fundamental question about society’s role in co-designing climate action requires an exchange between citizens and state. Citizen juries and assemblies are processes that can help to create the social mandate to move forward on socially-inclusive climate action.

These deliberative democratic processes with citizen’s input at their core can help design solutions and can increase public trust and inclusion in the design and delivery of solutions and any conditions,  behavioural or otherwise, that are required. (This is true as long as such engagement with citizens is taken forward by, for example, the recommendations taken fully into consideration in the design and implementation of climate solutions.)

Juries and assemblies are a structured way of equipping citizens with a coherent and robust narrative on climate change, supporting them 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 these solutions.

A glimpse of the future?

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.

A lack of preparation and planning to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and to respond to its impact, could lead to more stringent and less socially-accepted measures. We must leverage this fresh appreciation to promote a lasting move towards low-carbon behaviour.