Understanding normative change to address the climate emergency

How to galvanise climate action

UKRI Future Leaders Fellow Dr Viktoria Spaiser studies how social change can be accelerated in response to the climate crisis.

UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship
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In 2019 the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz declared that “The climate crisis is our third world war”. Many scientists and politicians agree that the efforts required to prevent catastrophic climate change are indeed comparable with or will exceed the efforts mobilised during the Second World War. An increasing number of countries, cities, organizations are declaring climate emergency and committing to achieve net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 or even 2030. But it is unclear how this commitment can be reached and how the population can be rallied behind the necessary but currently unpopular policies that must be implemented.

This challenge is also a puzzle in social science research. The required extent and pace of necessary social change in response to climate emergency is unprecedented and so existing theories of change are inadequate in specifying pathways of social transformation. This research will generate insights into how we can affect and accelerate social change (i.e. structural and behavioural change) to contribute to preventing the catastrophes that climate science tells us lie ahead. This will close the social science research gap on rapid social learning and help to answer political questions about how robust climate change policies can gather broad popular support.

The focus of the study will lie on social change driven by normative change. Differently from values, which define what people consider important to them, social norms define behaviours and attitudes that are considered acceptable in a society. As such norms have a more direct impact on behaviours and institutions. Previous research indicates that normative change (changes to social norms) can lead to social change on a large scale. We will investigate to what extent recent global climate protests such as Fridays For Futures, have set in motion normative change that is contesting existing norms regarded as inadequate in response to climate emergency. We will study what new norms are emerging, how they can diffuse through societal networks amplified through social innovators and opinion leaders, and how this process can be accelerated so that it can contribute to wider social change . We will also analyse resistance to normative change, apparent for instance in populist attacks on climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg. Do “norm antipreneurs” inhibit changes in social norms among the wider population and policy makers? And what role do fallible psychological defence mechanisms in response to climate change threat play? How can we facilitate empowering and adequate responses to the climate crisis?

We will use various data sources (including social media data, experimental data, survey data, elections data, parliamentary data, reports and qualitative interviews) along with a wide range of analysis approaches (computational, quantitative, qualitative) to understand the processes and dynamics of normative and wider social change. In collaboration with civil society actors and policy makers we want ultimately to develop strategies for accelerating social change in response to the climate crisis.

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