Despite anthropogenically induced climate change being viewed by many as one of the greatest societal challenges of the 21st century, discernment from the public, especially young people, remains under explored within the mitigation debate. This is surprising given research demonstrating the potential for collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally through individual behaviour changes. Young people are those in society that will live with the effects of future climate change the longest but are typically overlooked in forward planning. Consequently, this PhD thesis aims to provide detailed understanding of intersecting perception of climate change and levels of engagement being undertaken to explore how people, particularly the young, are reacting to climate change.
The nexus of these themes was explored using a mixed method approach through the use of primary data collection, including interviews (N = 5), two national surveys (N = 1,134, survey 1 and N = 1,700, survey 2) and a participatory workshop using the Yonmenkaigi System Method approach (N = 16). In addition, this primary data is cross-analysed through the use of secondary data (BEIS and Eurobarometer) to extrapolate a more comprehensive picture based on the case of the United Kingdom.
The research found that in the United Kingdom (and implicitly elsewhere) there are high-levels of perception of climate change as a major concern, especially amongst young people, and more extensively since 2013 when a social tipping point around this issue occurred. This has occurred despite of the ‘finite pool of worry’, a theory suggesting a likely plateauing or decline in concern when other crises start to predominate in people’s day to day, such as during the aftermath of the Brexit vote, COVID-19 and associated economic uncertainty.
In terms of youth and perception, this thesis found that whilst young people were the most likely to believe a climate change was happening and most likely to view that climate change is a serious problem, they were one of the least likely group of people to be able to determine what impacts were already being felt within the United Kingdom due to climate change.
Although there is this high level of belief in climate change amongst young people and civil society more widely, the level of engagement through mitigation strategies varies. Those strategies that are behavioural are generally undertaken, especially among the youngest in society and those who view climate change as serious. However, this applies when there is substantive investment. This demonstrates that if the government wants to implement significant change through the will of society to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, investment for those on low incomes is needed to enable the requisite behaviour change needed. This research also confirms a view, as iterated by many of its respondents, that education on climate change within the United Kingdom is lacking; application of participatory methods, such as the Yonmenkaigi System Method, demonstrated how education would progress the interconnection between perception and engagement.
This study recognises complexity involved in the interconnection between perception, engagement and reaction. However, it is argued that if social media generates fake news especially around climate change, then young people who are the most personal users of social media should be the most exposed. The results show that they are the most believing of climate change and that it is likely social media self-reinforces consistent beliefs through echo chambers.
Into the current lacuna of action by the government during this PhD research period, climate activism groups of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and ‘School Strikes for Climate Change’ materialised. It is argued that the actions of these groups are a form of ‘post-normal engagement’, where people apply their understanding, and that arises through a lack of facilitation of ‘post-normal science’ in relation to climate change within the United Kingdom. It was found that the majority of survey respondents were overall supportive of “Extinction Rebellion”. In addition, it was found that there was also a majority of support for the children striking for climate change and the mass civil disobedience that “Extinction Rebellion” called for in London in April 2019, though at varying levels across the demographic. However, respondents were generally not willing to themselves join future “Extinction Rebellion” protests. Women, younger people and left-leaning voters were more likely to support these two types of protests. The monitoring of the demographic composition of climate protests in terms of perception and engagement drivers helps to assess the nature of likely reactions and resistance to future climate policy including that associated with the content of COP26 being hosted in the UK during 2021. However, the implementation of a post-normal climate change science might help reduce the need for climate activism.