Research released yesterday by the new national campaign Climate Week generated some interesting results on which celebrities will most likely influence whether or not we take action on climate change. Apparently David Beckham is more likely to cause us to rethink our damaging environmental behaviour than a well-known campaigner such as Leonardo DiCaprio. The reason is simple. Millions of people admire Beckham for his professional skills as a footballer, and as a result will follow his lead on other subjects.
It is not ultimately the celebrities who are first and foremost the ones that are going to get us to pull our finger out and actually behave differently, however. What appears to make most difference when it comes to environmental action are the people closest to us. If an entire street obsessively and visibly recycled everything possible, most people would join in rather than being odd ones out. If your group of friends all decided to buy locally produced food you would be statistically more likely to do the same.
I have for a long time believed that policy and technology can take us only so far on the environmental journey the world must make. It seems to me that shifts to popular culture are a vital and underestimated part of where change must occur. And this is where the environmentally minded among us can make a bigger difference than we often acknowledge.
Many people in the UK say they don't act on climate change because they don't think others are doing their bit. How many times have we heard that there is no point in doing anything because no one else is, or that there is no point in cutting emissions because one person can't make a difference? These views are culturally embedded and they block action, but they can change.
People trust those they know. Our partners have the greatest influence on the decisions we make (so say 58% of people) and their impact is partly due to nagging. Some 69% of men say they are most likely to be influenced by those that nag them. Our friends have a huge amount of sway as well (41% cite their influence). That cuts both ways – that means our friends will listen to us as well as us listening to them. There is well-known psychology behind these results. The simple fact is that we humans generally don't like to go against the grain. We are social creatures and our social order is constructed out of behavioural norms that – by and large – we sign up to. Those social norms are mainly cultural and evolve through what we all do. If we live in a greener way, it is more likely that friends and family will do so too, especially if the behavioural change is seen to be positive and aspirational.
If we are to achieve 80% plus cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century we will need pro-environmental behaviour to become the norm. . Psychologists have documented how things actually going on around us have far more of an impact on our behaviour than being told what to do, or having statistics repeated at us. Forty years ago the chances are that someone who said they weren't going to drink and drive would have been ridiculed. Today the opposite is true. And this is mainly down to behaviour having changed. Adverts raised awareness, but the thing that really did the trick was peer influence. To drink and drive is now not the done thing.
Many successful environmental campaigns have started at grassroots level – by people passing the word to those they know. Modbury is an excellent example of this. This tiny town in Devon became the first in the UK to go plastic bag-free after one of the residents spoke up about the environmental damage they caused. Rebecca Hoskin, a camerawoman who had seen the devastation caused to marine life by plastic bags while filming in the Pacific, became a one-woman campaign. She persuaded the town's 43 traders to stop giving out plastic bags. Why did they listen to her? Because they knew her and trusted her.
There are many more examples of great role models out there - if you know someone, a group or a business that deserves to be recognised, then nominate them for the Climate Week hero awards.