What my taxi driver said about climate change, and why it matters

“It’s just a bunch of bad scientists who couldn’t get jobs, trying to come out with the most extreme stuff just to justify what they do.”

This was part of a conversation I had with a Bristol taxi driver this morning. Taxi driver chats are becoming a favourite pastime of mine. They often top and tail discussion groups, since most of the taxi journeys I make are between railway stations and venues, and it usually doesn’t take long to get on to the environment, though I confess I do sometimes help things on their way.

“Lovely day, but still freezing,” opened my driver this morning. “Too true, don’t see any signs of this global warming,” my reply. That’s what’s lovely about taxi rides – unlike discussion groups where – for good reason – it’s crucial not to take sides, you can be anyone you like to a cabbie. In ten minutes’ time, you’ll part company, never to speak again.

I used to get into fairly heated debates with taxi drivers about environmental issues (and racial equality – another unavoidable hot topic for many taxi drivers, though not often framed in those terms) but I’ve learned it’s actually better just to kick things off and let them do the talking – you learn a lot more. This morning, I was keen to explore a view that has been increasingly expressed in the discussion groups we’ve run (and in the media more widely): namely, that cold weather and global warming don’t add up for many consumers. The response suggested that the recent cold spell had only reinforced the driver’s existing reservations about climate science.

The consumers we speak to often express their doubts about environmental issues, but it’s rare for them to do so in the same way they would talk about these topics to friends and colleagues at work or in the pub. There’s none of the familiarity that comes from speaking to people you know, and who you know are like you.  Taxi drivers offer an opportunity to get around this, because they’re usually well versed in speaking their minds to complete strangers.

So, unencumbered by the constraints of formal market research, I’ve taken to using them as a reality check. When most of the people you work with, from colleagues to clients, share a similar world view, it’s very easy to convince yourself that we’re further forward than might actually be the case. We had a sobering experience in our research on green terms recently when it became apparent just how little the word ‘sustainable’ means to the average consumer when used in association with green issues. For those of us who have been working on sustainability for many years, it’s a little disconcerting to find that most people don’t really understand your job description.

In transplanting our own everyday experiences of the environmental debate onto our expectations of others, we’re influenced by exactly the social norms that we hope may motivate the wider public to act on climate change. Put simply, if people see that others like them are changing their behaviour, they’re far more likely to follow suit. But what if the everyday conversations the public are having are more like my chat with a Bristol taxi driver than the conversations we’re having in environmental circles?

It would of course be daft to treat cabbies as a representative barometer for the British public at large, but at the same time, their frankness and honesty can be illuminating. For those of us who spend our days with our heads in the behaviour change clouds, a taxi chat can be a handy way to keep our feet on the ground.


  1. David Fell
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Funnily enough, my cabbie the other day had heard about a big iceberg falling off the edge of Antarctica and, despite the fact that this sort of thing happens all the time, it had made him wonder if this climate change business might actually be true after all.

  2. Posted January 31, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Nice post. I liked reading it. Everyone should be cautious about climate change.

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