After smoking and drink‐driving, could climate change provide the next big behaviour‐change challenge? The latest science tells us that nothing short of rapid, transformative change in our infrastructure and behaviour can prevent the loss of the climate we depend on – yet the message is only now being officially endorsed at the highest scientific level, because the implications are terrifying for today’s political and economic gatekeepers. It means real change, which incumbents always fear.

But are we better at society‐wide changes in attitude and behaviour than we give ourselves credit for? And do recent cultural shifts relating to everything from diet to plastics, sexism and attitudes to gender and identity suggest that we might be entering a phase in which more rapid behavioural changes are possible? Research in a new report for a soon‐to‐be launched international alliance of concerned groups suggests so.

The really big behaviour changes need to be seen first and most among the populations of the high‐consuming, wealthier countries. In recent decades most of these have built up experience of how to achieve behaviour change by tackling several public health crises.

Today in the UK fewer than one in five adults still smoke and rates have fallen sharply even in the past five years. But in the early 1970s, more than half of men and over 40% of women smoked. It’s a huge success against the odds concerning a highly addictive product, promoted by a powerful industry that knew about, but publicly denied, knowledge of the harm it caused. Comparisons are close and disturbing with oil companies like ExxonMobil, which was aware of climate change as early as 1977. Change was achieved with a comprehensive approach of awareness raising, tough regulation, pricing and support.

Dangerous driving and drink‐driving is another example. Car use in the UK was 20 times higher in 2016 compared with 1949, but the risk of being injured or killed fell almost every year from 1949, from 165 deaths for every billion miles driven, to only 5.4 such deaths in 2015. To achieve that change meant challenging people’s perceptions of risk about their own behaviour, raising awareness of the resulting harm to self and others, persuading people to leave their cars at home and take different forms of transport if they planned to drink, and changes to vehicles themselves and the physical driving environment.

Other examples of successful behaviour change can be found in responses to the HIV/Aids crisis, the dangers of an unhealthy diet and antibiotic resistance.

These examples all provide grounds for hope – but there are signs that something else is happening that might bring even faster shifts in attitude and behaviour closer to what is needed to meet vital climate targets. A mixture of new social movements and social media now seem capable of transforming gradual background shifts into defining moments of change.

They reveal that while change can take decades, these days new social norms can become established almost overnight. From the shift around single‐use plastics, to the #MeToo movement and the rise of the vegan diet, things are moving fast. The male‐only charity fundraiser went out of business following a single investigative report by the Financial Times into the Presidents Club scandal. Likewise, the tide turned rapidly against male‐only conference panels once they began to be named and shamed online.

Things change. It’s the one thing that is reliable. The climate is changing faster than the attitudes and behaviour of the people most responsible for causing its disruption – but we now know enough to speed things up if we choose to.

After a summer of lethal, extreme weather events, it is also becoming clear that disruption of the climate is a public health issue on a much grander scale than smoking or drink‐driving.

Rapid shifts in how we live, work and run the economy have to be made. We should be optimistic that changing our behaviour – to the extent required – is possible.

Andrew Simms

First published by The Guardian, 1 October 2018.