Fellow’s work reveals ‘Overwhelming’ international support for more government action on environment
Lee de-Wit trained as an experimental psychologist/ cognitive neuroscientist, and his current research and teaching focuses on Political Psychology. He is a Staff Fellow in Psychology at Trinity Hall. We spoke to him about his latest work on a survey experiment, and his role in the College.
Why did you do this research?
This actually started because one of the PhD students in my lab (Tessa Buchanan) formerly worked in the Foreign Office, and they were interested in our message framing research. Our starting point was testing whether some messages might be more effective in attracting more support for environmental action and certain policies at COP26. The climate conference in Glasgow represents one of the biggest ever opportunities for world leaders to change direction on climate change. We were concerned however that the messaging ahead of this conference might not be very effective in gaining the popular support that would make it easier for politicians to take action.
Why did you commission an international survey?
It is clear that certain countries are key to a commitment to action at COP26, so assessing levels of support in a range of countries, and whether those levels of support could be increased, is an important part of reaching an ambitious agreement at COP26.
Were you surprised by the results (given the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories)?
Yes. Not only did we see very high levels of support for government action to protect the environment, we also saw strong levels of support for a range of policies. Surprisingly also, the message framing we tested had only a small effect. People who read a message calling for action to protect the environment framed in terms of the benefits to ‘public health’ were a little more likely to support government action (especially in China), and showed a little more support for a policy of tree planting, but these effects were only a couple of percent above our control condition.
What was the most surprising result for you?
That even a small minority of respondents who voted for Donald Trump in 2020 wanted more government action to protect the environment.
What do you hope this research will achieve?
I hope it will give politicians going into COP26 more confidence that people in the countries they represent want to see more action to protect the environment, and that there are a range of policy options that are supported by a majority in those countries.
Does it give you hope for the future?
Honestly I fear we are still being hugely naïve about the risks of climate change. Our current level of urgency reminds me of January 2020, when we could see the risks of a pandemic around the world, but seemed unable to collectively imagine or meaningfully act despite the scientific modelling which had long predicted what could happen with a virus like Covid. These results do give me hope that people at least want to see more action, but we all wait in anticipation to see whether COP26 actually results in commitments to the bold action we need.
Why do you think there is a right/ left split in the US and UK?
Historically, there is evidence that climate skepticism is associated with right leaning ‘free market’ ideologies. The argument goes that if you think the free market can most effectively organize the economy, then climate change potentially threatens that position, because it so clearly requires government intervention. I suspect however steps to frame climate change as an issue of national security (ensuring energy independence) under Obama helped to reduce some degree of polarization on the topic in the US. In the UK, I suspect David Cameron helped, at least symbolically, to shift the divide between the left and the right on climate change, by signalling conservative commitment to tackling climate change (and his famous ‘hug a husky’ PR move). I think there is still a tendency across the political spectrum to frame tackling climate change as a ‘cost’, rather than acknowledging the cost of not tackling it. Importantly however, post-coronavirus there is an increasing consensus that government intervention will be needed to get our economy back on track, I hope that the left and the right in the UK will recognise the huge opportunity this offers to get our economy moving in a green direction.
How does College life fit in with your research – what are the benefits of College life?
One of the great things about being in College is having the chance to have more in depth discussions with students, not just about research, but the implications of that research for some of the challenges facing us. I think younger generations are often a little bit more ambitious, not just to advance their knowledge and understanding, but to think about how that knowledge and understanding could be applied to tackle the many problems that confront us and future generations.
Why did you go into psychology as an academic discipline and would you recommend it to others?
I think many of the challenges we face today will require a deeper understanding of human psychology. Personally my research focuses on political psychology, because I think we need a better understanding of human psychology to improve and enhance democratic institutions and practises. More generally however, from improving educational outcomes to tackling mental health challenges I think the science of human behaviour has so much to contribute to improving our lives.
What do you do to save the planet?
I am generally conscious to avoid framing action to tackle climate change as one of individual responsibility; I think we need to focus on collective and political action. That said, in my personal life, I do try and take the action I think is most effective to reduce climate emissions, so I have only taken one flight as an adult, I don’t own a car (I don’t even know how to drive), I have a very well insulated flat, and I am vegan (99% of the time!). As I say though, I think the more important actions I take are not individual but also to push for collective action: so I participate in politics; I go on demonstrations about climate change; and, probably most importantly, I encourage research on climate change in my lab (and I include climate change in my lectures to our undergraduates). As an educator, I think better equipping the next generation is one of the most impactful things that universities can do.