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The University of Southampton
Public Policy|Southampton

Enabling Long-term Behaviour Change for Ocean Climate Action


According to the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC), one third of greenhouse gas emissions reductions up to 2035 require decisions by individuals and households to adopt low carbon technologies and choose low-carbon products and services, as well as to reduce carbon-intensive consumption. However, a recent report published by the UK Parliament had found that the Government's current approach to enabling behaviour change is seriously inadequate and that it will result in the UK failing to meet its net-zero and environment targets. It recommended that the Government should “learn from examples of where it has enabled behaviour change” and to “use every lever the Government has - including regulations and fiscal incentives and disincentives - to address the barriers which prevent changing behaviours” while acknowledging that interventions should be designed equitably and fairly. While the report’s recommendations took a positive step through widening the definition of what constitutes a “government intervention”, it failed to clearly recognise the findings from a 2015 World Bank report, which comprehensively synthesised thousands of studies from over 80 nations looking at the role of psychological and social factors in decision-making and behaviour change, and found that “policy makers often underestimate the social component in behavior change”. Focusing on human behaviour vis-a-vis the ocean, this project aspires to inform policymakers around effective approaches for achieving sustained behavioural change to meet climate and environmental goals, with a specific emphasis on the role which context-setting and mindfulness could play in this.

Based on an analysis of the theory and application of behaviour change in established contexts (e.g. in medicine and mental health), the project aims to identify the optimal stages where government intervention would be most effective to produce long-term behaviour change for climate action around the ocean. It will also present recommendations on types of interventions to achieve this goal based on an analysis of the history and trends around ocean literacy (commonly defined as “the understanding of our individual and collective impact on the Ocean and its impact on our lives and wellbeing”). This analysis would provide insights into the “state of change” which people are in with regards to behaviours impacting the ocean, which can then be matched with appropriate types of interventions as supported by literature and experience. The project can be actionable through the development of climate change policies which recognise that raising public awareness about climate action predicates the behavioural change sought after.


The project’s ultimate objective is to achieve a long-lasting improved relationship between humans and the ocean, in a manner that would preserve the ocean and recognise its vital role for climate action. In other words, it would lead to improvements in ocean literacy and greater awareness of the role which humans play in keeping our ocean healthy to sustain a better life for all. This is in contrast with the compliance with regulations or responses to financial and fiscal incentives/disincentives (akin to the Government’s approach during the COVID-19 pandemic) which motivates short-term/superficial behaviour change which does not result out of a deeper modification in perceptions about the challenge at hand. Through the development of a policy brief and engaging with policy stakeholders with interest in and influence on the subject via roundtable and bilateral discussions where the findings of the research and the recommendations made will be presented, the project purports to introduce a different approach to be added to the thinking around effectively achieving behaviour change to meet climate and environmental goals. The approach is people-focused as it empowers individuals through changing their perception of their own influence on the ocean and their interconnectedness with it, which would generate a lasting motivation/desire to adopt behaviour to preserve it.

Potential Impact

Similarly to what is currently the case for public health (through guidance documents published by Public Health England), the potential impact which this project could produce includes the development of policies to raise awareness of the impact of our perception of social norms and of our relationship with the ocean on our ultimate behaviour towards it, as well as guidelines on achieving positive behaviour change around the ocean through influencing this perception at local and national level. Such guidelines and policies could be developed by various governmental bodies that govern human ocean-related activities and are entrusted with the protection and preservation of the marine environment, as well as those involved in the setting and delivery of the Government’s climate change goals. The project could also be actionable through the dissemination of the anthology for COP27 as an example of how public awareness for climate action could be raised.

Sustainable Development Goals

SDG13 - Climate Action; SDG14 - Life Below Water.

Project Lead

Wassim Dbouk

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