Climate Change – Keeping a Cool Head in a Storm

Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE, Professor of Environmental Psychology at University of Bath and Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations, explains the escalating concerns around climate change, and the future that she sees. 

The ‘wake-up call’ on climate change, as Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh describes it, started some four years ago, with the IPCC’s 2018 Global Warming of 1.5°C report. The no-holds-barred report told us that emissions must be halved within a decade. The language used by governments and other organisations became more urgent, more alarmist, and talked about ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’. Yet frustratingly, little action at a global level has been visible.

Outcomes from various environmental conferences have been patchy, and Lorraine echoes the disappointment of many in last year’s COP27. “A bit of progress was made, mainly around compensating poor countries for the damage they are experiencing because of rich countries’ pollution. But this tackles the effects rather than the causes of climate change. We need to be cutting our emissions more urgently – and we’ve seen only minimal progress on this.”

She believes that a perfect storm has been created. The combination of frustration at the pace of change, the shock from the IPCC report and the visible evidence of extreme weather events around the world, has led to a new wave of public action. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and the Fridays for Future school protests are proliferating, and their tactics are evolving to cause ever greater disruption, aiming at increasingly high profile targets.

She says, “There could be a public backlash, but for now, there is no evidence of that. We know that the majority of the public is concerned about climate change and wants action. And the protestors are desperate. So, the question is whether these protests will work to accelerate policy change; because we need governments to take action, to regulate for climate change and put economic measures in place, to radically change society and de-carbonise it.”

So what does this look like, in real terms? 

‘Climate change is a collective problem, so we cannot put the responsibility on individuals.’

To begin to make these profound changes, Lorraine says, “There are three key elements of society that must come together – government, business and the public. Climate change is a collective problem, so we cannot put the responsibility on individuals.”

“The government has to make it easier for consumers to do their bit,” she says. “And to do this, it has to incentivise business to create the green goods and services that the public need. We need to make it easy for people to do the right thing.” She cites car use as an example. “The single best thing you can do to cut your carbon footprint is to reduce car use. But at the moment, depending on where you live, the alternatives may be actual barriers to change.”

But, she says, “We are a nation of innovators. We have world-class scientists developing new technologies. There’s no shortage of know-how here: it’s more about the incentives for business to invest in these new technologies and products, and to be able to mass produce them. As a developed country, and one that was at the forefront of the industrial revolution that caused a significant proportion of the pollution that’s causing climate change, we need to be amongst the nations leading on tackling it.”

‘We need strong female voices addressing climate change.’

And, she adds, we need women to play a major part in this movement. “Women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change, and so we need strong female voices addressing climate change, and taking leadership roles to create a more climate friendly world.”

It doesn’t all sit at a global, leadership level, though: we need to play our part as individuals, too. Facing the enormity of global climate change at a personal level can feel overwhelming, as can some of the changes that we should be making. But Lorraine is keen to stress that change is not all about sacrifice.

“People assume that ‘going green’ means giving up things you like, and while there will be an element of swapping things around, it will, in all probability, improve your health. And there’s a good chance it will make you happier. Because it’s not just the environment that improves,” she says. “Economic benefits are generated through environmental innovations and the jobs these will create, and there are huge gains in terms of health and wellbeing.”

‘Less materialistic people tend to be happier.’

She also points to the research in re-evaluating consumerism. “Less materialistic people tend to be happier,” she says simply. “There are lots of good reasons for ‘going green’ but actually, the most obvious one is that it will probably make you happy.”

Looking to the future, Lorraine remains optimistic. “I see enough signs of hope. Electric vehicles are being rolled out much faster than we predicted. And even without any government intervention, more people are changing their diets and choosing plant-based foods, and businesses are investing in these alternatives. Renewables in the UK are growing

strongly now, and a recent report predicts that fossil fuel usage will peak in the next few years, so after that, emissions will start to come down
A new dawn after the storm, perhaps.

Five ways to make a positive impact on climate change

We asked Lorraine for five simple ways each of us can make a positive difference to the environment:

An alumna of Portsmouth High School, and a GDST Alumna of the Year 2022 finalist, Lorraine Whitmarsh MBE is Professor of Environmental Psychology at University of Bath and Director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. She is also a Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Lorraine has worked with city councils to design interventions that encourage low-carbon travel, and was involved with the Climate Assembly UK, a citizen engagement process that looked to take public opinion on climate change to the Government of the United Kingdom. In 2021, she joined the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, which advises policymakers on strategies for the shift to a net zero future. As part of COP26, she called for more female leadership in climate change discussions.


GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2023/24

Our interview with Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh was part of our 2023/24 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine which also includes a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings and and how you can keep in touch.