Postdoctoral Fellow : Dr Steve Westlake

Dr Steve Westlake, Psychology, Cardiff University 

Title: The power of leading by example with high-impact, low-carbon behaviour  

We often hear calls for “leadership” to address the climate crisis. Take David Attenborough’s speech at the 2018 UN climate conference (COP24) where he said: “Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands.” But the precise meaning of “leadership” – what leaders should actually do – is rarely defined. My research focusses on one crucial but under-researched aspect of leadership: leading by example with low-carbon behaviour.   

The ERSC fellowship will allow me to develop this research and take it to a wide audience, informing leaders themselves about how their behavioural choices may influence others, and giving the public new information about what they should expect from climate leaders. I will write journal articles, blogs, briefing notes, and disseminate the findings more widely.  

In the research I ask the questions:   

  • What happens if politicians, celebrities and business leaders make visible changes to their own lifestyles by flying less, eating less meat, improving the efficiency of their homes, and driving electric cars?   
  • Do others follow their example?  
  • What signals does it send about the leaders’ commitment to tackling climate change?  
  • Can leading by example speed up the transition to a low-carbon society?  

In my PhD I found the public generally approve of leaders who “walk the talk” in this way, but they are ruthless in their scrutiny of leaders’ actions and motives. In interviews with UK Members of Parliament (MPs), I discovered they want to lead by example in principle but said it was difficult in practice because it would look like “virtue signalling” and might damage their reputation.   

However, in a survey experiment I found that leaders who walk the talk raise the willingness of other to take low-carbon action, and such leaders are perceived as much more credible and likeable. In addition, I found that high profile leaders who set a behavioural example can exert more influence than friends, family and colleagues. The research informs the debate about the relevance of individual action in the face of a global problem like climate change.