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The role of subjective factors in local authorities' action on climate change in South West England

Westcott, Gill M

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Gill M Westcott


This study examines the question of whether subjective attitudes to climate change play a significant part in the determination of local authorities’ policy and actions on climate change mitigation; whether the personal views of council members and officers about climate change, their beliefs, fears and attitudes affect the outcomes in terms of policy and action, or whether organizational culture, norms and collectively policed limits to discourse have this effect; or whether, on the contrary, the influence of central government policy is so overwhelming that action and policy is determined almost wholly by external and objective influences. The research fills a gap in the literature in studying both subjective attitudes and socio-cultural factors together with external and material factors in order to assess the importance of the former.

Interviews with officers and members of local authorities in the South West of England and other data identify that considerable reductions in councils’ own greenhouse emissions have been achieved, not wholly due to cutbacks and other contextual factors, but policy for more widespread carbon reduction in their geographical areas was more limited. Central government finance and policy were key determinants of action in all the local authorities studied, but significant differences between authorities are linked to differences in the prevalence of climate change dismissal.

Psycho-social methods are used to achieve a more subtle and coherent view of individual attitudes to climate change, to identify relevant aspects of corporate culture, and to tease out how objective influences such as financial incentives and political pressures interact with these attitudes.

The study finds that climate dismissal and denial present obstacles to carbon reduction initiatives and reduce the number which emerge; it also identifies the way organizational culture, including the growing dominance of financial and economic discourse, can constrain possibilities and proposals. Based on the interview data, I argue that financial incentives not only encourage but enable discussion of carbon reduction measures, and that severe budgetary constraints undermine a sense of agency as well as curtailing long term ambition in carbon reduction. Perceived lack of agency, at times deployed as a ‘tool of innocence’, also emerges as a key contributor to climate change dismissal, as well as more specific political and personal attitudes. Implications for policy at local and national level are derived from the research findings.


Westcott, G. M. The role of subjective factors in local authorities' action on climate change in South West England. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 7, 2019
Keywords climate change, local government, councils, psychosocial, south west England, carbon reduction, climate change policy, climate change denial
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