Our changing behaviours in response to climate change

Antje Lang, Climate Change Consultant, Sustainability and Resilience Practice, AECOM


Understanding how individuals respond and adapt to the impacts of climate change is important if we are to enact policies that strengthen our collective resilience post-pandemic. Drawing on research results undertaken by AECOM on behalf of the UK’s Climate Change Committee, sustainability and resilience specialist Antje Lang explores these patterns of behaviour and outlines how local councils and decision-makers can use them to best effect going forward.

While the coronavirus pandemic may have driven a record drop in carbon emissions, we know that the climate is still changing and that we remain locked into a degree of warming, along with the associated impacts that it will bring. Collective adaptation to these changes is non-negotiable; even if we continue to decrease our carbon emissions to net-zero, it is impossible to eradicate the risk from climate change impacts. Therefore, we need to put systems in place that allow us to be prepared to adapt and respond to these impacts. Individuals and communities have a crucial role to play.

Key concepts:

Climate change mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow or stop global climate change (eg flying less, using renewable energy).

Climate change adaptation refers to adjusting to the impacts of climate change to reduce the negative impacts and exploit opportunities (eg building sea walls, planting green spaces, purchasing flood insurance).

Climate resilience refers to the ability system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, transform, or recover from the effects of a climate-related event in a timely and efficient manner.

There is plenty of opportunity for the public and private sector to embed resilience into their programmes, policies, and operations as we both reimagine and rebuild from coronavirus. We must also recognise, however, that individuals and communities are already taking action to adapt to and become more resilient in the face of climate change, and that there are ways in which individuals and communities can strengthen this resilience going forward.

The Sustainable and Resilient Cities team at AECOM took part in supporting research for the UK Climate Change Committee’s third Climate Change Risk Assessment (forthcoming 2022). Our research, Understanding how behaviours can influence climate change risk  (PDF) identifies what adaptation behaviours people in the UK are currently undertaking  without the influence of government or private incentives. This is called autonomous adaptation. We also look at why they were undertaking behaviours, and how to incentivise behaviours that are risk-reducing.

One key outcome of the research was our delineation of behaviour typologies (table 1). We found that most people undertake vulnerability reduction measures, specifically to reduce flood risk (eg tanking basement walls, moving appliances off the ground). Preparedness for response was the second most common type of adaptation (eg have a household emergency kit handy, sign up to weather alerts).

Table 1: Adaptive behaviour typologies
Behaviour type Description Examples
Hazard reduction To limit or avoid exposure to climate change hazards Move to a new property to avoid coastal erosion
Vulnerability reduction To reduce current and future vulnerability to hazards Install removable flood barriers
Preparedness for response To provide functional and flexible mechanisms, systems, and structures for disaster response Have a household emergency kit prepared
Coping during crisis To provide short-term solutions to mitigate harm  Take cool showers during a heat wave
Preparedness for recovery To provide functional and flexible mechanisms, systems, and structures for disaster recovery Have tools on hand to remove debris after a storm

Source: AECOM, 2020.

Perhaps even more important than the what people are doing, is the why. The underlying factors that drive people to take adaptive action or not can be leveraged to incentivise autonomous adaptation. Our research found five key factors that strongly influenced behaviour (see table 2).

Table 2: Underlying factors influencing behaviour
Factor Description
Perceived response-efficacy The belief that the behaviour will be effective
Perceived self-efficacy The belief that one has the capability to undertake a behaviour
Direct past experience Previous experiences of a climate event impacts negative affect (eg negative emotions around something that trigger action to resolve those emotions) and learning, driving future adaptive behaviour
Social norms and social capital The norms of the local context and actions of behaviours, social ties and links, sense of community
Socio-demographic factors Marital status, gender, income, political orientation, and value orientation

Source: AECOM, 2020.

These factors have a lot to tell us about how local councils and organisations can incentivise people to undertake adaptive action. For example, providing clear and easily accessible information about which adaptation actions are effective goes a long way towards prompting people to do them. One clear way this could be stepped up is articulating to people that adaptation is not all about physical infrastructure. Adaptation also includes actions like having emergency supply kits, having strong social networks so you have resources and support to draw upon in hard times, purchasing insurance to make sure that damage to an asset doesn’t cause someone to fall into debt, and so on.

Additionally, local councils can support community organisations and schools to integrate makers studios into existing spaces, to support people to feel more confident that they have the requisite skills to take action (perceived self-efficacy). These spaces have the dual benefit of providing knowledge-sharing opportunities but also strengthening the social networks of a community, which is essential to building resilience.

And while we hope that people don’t have to experience climate-related events, the fact is many of us will in the coming years. Therefore, councils have a role to play in supporting people to build their own capacity to adapt, and to build their resilience following these events, as those with direct past experience are more likely to act. This can then translate into social norms that might influence others.

Leveraging autonomous adaptation also fits well with the current shift towards more flexible working environments and more hyperlocal ways of living. As we reframe our existing systems of working and living in response to coronavirus, we need to in-build resilience into these new systems, ensuring these systems are flexible and adaptable. On an individual level, our research recognises that there is no one-size fits all approach to autonomous adaptation and different approaches will be and should be taken depending on the context and the person. Human behaviour is flexible and adaptable, and that’s what councils need to encourage and facilitate if the UK is to adapt successfully to climate change.

This article is from our Local Path to Net Zero series.