New research in Europe and the United States shows that large portions of the public still do not accept the urgency of the climate crisis, and only a minority believe it will impact them and their families severely over the next fifteen years.
The survey, which was commissioned by d|part and the Open Society European Policy Institute, forms part of a major new study of climate awareness. It charts attitudes on the existence, causes, and impacts of climate change in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, the UK and the US. It also examines public attitudes to a series of policies that the EU and national governments could harness to reduce the damage inflicted by human-made emissions.
The report finds that, though a clear majority of European and American respondents are aware that the climate is warming, and that it is likely to have negative impacts for humankind, there is a distorted public understanding of the scientific consensus in both Europe and America. This, the report argues, has created a gap between public awareness and climate science, leaving the public underestimating the urgency of the crisis, and failing to appreciate the scale of the action required.
All but a small minority accept that human activities have a role in climate change – with no more than 10% refusing to believe this in any country surveyed.
However, while outright denial is rare, there is widespread confusion about the extent of human responsibility. Large minorities – ranging from 17% to 44% across the surveyed countries – still believe that climate change is caused equally by humans and natural processes. This matters because those who do accept that climate change is the result of human action are twice as likely to believe it will cause negative consequences in their own lives.
Significant minorities believe scientists are equally divided on the causes of global warming – including two thirds of voters in Czech Republic (67%) and nearly half in UK (46%). In reality, 97 per cent of climate scientists agree that humans have caused recent global warming.
A large majority of Europeans and US citizens in all nine countries polled agree that climate change requires a collective response, whether to mitigate climate change or adapt to its challenges. Majorities in Spain (80%) Italy (73%), Poland (64%), France (60%), the UK (58%) and the US (57%) agree with the statement that “we should do everything we can to stop climate change.”
The report also finds that there is polarisation along party political lines on climate change – in Europe as well as the US. Those on the left tend to be more aware of the existence, causes and impact of climate change, and more in favour of action, than people on the right. These differences are more important than demographic variation in most countries. For example, in the US, those who identify as left in their political orientation are nearly three times as likely to expect a negative impact on their own lives (49%) compared to those who identify as more on the right (17%). Polarisation is also marked in Sweden, France, Italy and the UK. The only country where there is balance across the spectrum is the Czech Republic.
Majorities are willing to act on climate change, but the actions they favour tend to be consumer-focused rather than efforts to create collective social change. A majority of respondents in every country say they have already cut their plastic consumption (62%), their air travel (61%) or their car travel (55%). A majority also says they either already have or are planning to reduce their meat consumption, switch to a green energy supplier, vote for party because of their climate change programme, or buy more organic and locally produced food.
However, people are much less likely to support civil society engagement directly, with only small minorities having donated to an environmental organization (15% across the survey), joined an environmental organization, (8% across the survey), or joined an environmental protest (9% across the survey). Only a quarter (25%) of respondents across the survey say they have voted for a political party because of their climate change policies.
Just 47 per cent of those surveyed believe they, as individuals, have very high responsibility for tackling climate change. Only in the UK (66%), Germany (55%), the US (53%), Sweden, (52%), and Spain (50%) is there a majority who feel a high sense of responsibility themselves. In every country surveyed people are more likely to think that their national Government has a high responsibility for tackling climate change. This ranges from 77% of those surveyed in Germany and the UK to 69% in the US, 69% in Sweden and 73% in Spain. In every EU country, respondents were slightly more likely to see the EU as having a high responsibility for reducing climate change than national Governments.
The polling also finds that people prefer to be offered incentives to act on climate change rather than face bans or carbon taxes. A small majority are willing to pay some more tax for greater action on climate change - apart from in France, Italy and the Czech Republic – but the percentage willing to pay more than a small amount (one hour’s wage per month) is limited to at most a quarter – in Spain and the US. Increasing taxes on all flights, or introducing a levy for frequent flyers, garnered some support across the polled countries (between 18 per cent and 36 per cent, collectively). Although the preferred policy for tackling air travel emissions, by a clear margin, was improving ground infrastructure for buses and trains.
Heather Grabbe, director of Open Society European Policy Institute, said “Many citizens across Europe and US still don’t realize that scientific consensus on human responsibility for climate change is overwhelming. Though outright denialism is rare, there is a widespread false belief, promoted by vested interests opposed to emissions reductions, that scientists are split on whether humans are causing climate change – when in fact 97% of scientists know that.
"This soft denialism matters because it lulls the public into thinking that climate change won’t affect their lives much over the next decades, and they don’t realise how radically we need to change our economic system and habits to prevent ecological collapse. Our polling shows that the more convinced people are that climate change is the result of human activity, the more accurately they estimate its impact and the more they want action.”
Jan Eichhorn, research director of d|part and lead author of the study, said: "The public in Europe and the US want to see action in response to climate change across all demographics. Politicians need to show leadership in responding to this desire in an ambitious way that enhances people's understanding of the severity of the crisis and the impact humans have - as this understanding is not developed enough so far. Relying on individual action is not enough. People see the state and international organizations at the EU in charge. People are principally open to being convinced to support more extensive action, but to achieve this urgently requires further work from political and civil society actors."
- A sizeable majority of Europeans and Americans believe that climate change is happening. In all nine countries surveyed, an overwhelming majority of respondents say that the climate is probably or definitely changing – ranging from 83 per cent in the US to 95 per cent in Germany.
- Outright climate change denial is scarce in all of the countries surveyed. The USA and Sweden have the largest group of people who either doubt climate change or are convinced it is not happening, and, even here, it only comprises just over 10 per cent of those surveyed.
- However, over a third (35%) of those surveyed in the nine countries attribute climate change to a balance of natural and human processes – with this feeling most pronounced in France (44%), the Czech Republic (39%) and the US (38%). The plurality view among respondents is that it is caused “mainly by human activity”.
- A significant group of ‘soft’ attribution sceptics believe that, contrary to the scientific consensus, climate change is caused equally by human activities and natural processes: these constituencies range from 17 per cent in Spain to 44 per cent in France. When added to the “hard” attribution sceptics, who don’t believe human activity is a contributing factor to climate change, these sceptics together make up the majority in France, Poland, the Czech Republic and the USA.
- Majorities believe that climate change will have very negative consequences for life on earth in Spain (65%), Germany (64%), the UK (60%), Sweden (57%), the Czech Republic (56%) and Italy (51%). However, there is a significant minority of “impact sceptics” who believe the negative consequences will be outweighed by the positive - ranging from 17 per cent in the Czech Republic to 34 per cent in France. There is also a group in the middle who don’t see global warming as harmless, but think that negative consequences will also be balanced by positive ones. This “middle group” ranges from 12 per cent in Spain to 43 per cent in France.
- Most people don’t think their own lives will be strongly affected by climate change in the next fifteen years. Only in Italy, Germany and France do more than a quarter of people think their lives will be strongly disrupted by climate change by 2035 if no additional action is taken. While the prevailing view is that there will be some change to their lives, a considerable minority believe their lives won’t change at all as a result of unchecked climate change – with the largest group in the Czech Republic (26%) followed by Sweden (19%), the USA and Poland (18%), Germany (16%) and the UK (15%).
- Age makes a difference to views on climate change, but only in certain countries. Overall, younger people tend to be more likely to expect negative impacts of climate change on their lives by 2035 if nothing is done to address the issues. This trend is particularly strong in Germany; where negative impacts are expected by 36 per cent of 18-34 year olds (compared to 30% of 55- 74 year olds), Italy; (46% of 18-34 year olds compared to 33% of 55-74-year olds), Spain; (43% of 18-34 year olds compared to 32% of 55-74 year olds) and the UK; (36% of 18-34 year olds compared to 22% of 55-74 year olds).
- Imposing higher taxes on flights is only seen as the best option to reduce emissions from flights by a minority - ranging from 18 per cent in Spain to 30 per cent in the US and 36 per cent per cent in the UK. An outright ban on internal flights within countries is even less popular, enjoying most support in France (14%) and Germany (14%). The most popular policy for reducing emissions from plane travel is improving the train and bus networks, which is chosen as the best policy by a majority of respondents in Spain, Italy and Poland.
- Majorities in most countries are willing to persuade their friends and family to behave in a more climate-friendly way – with only 11 per cent in Italy and 18 per cent in Spain not willing to do this. However, nearly 40 per cent of people in the Czech Republic, France, the US and the UK would not contemplate this idea at all.
- There is widespread support for switching to a green energy firm to provide household energy. However, France and the US have large minorities (42% and 39% respectively) who would not consider a switch to green energy. This compares to just 14 per cent in Italy and 20 per cent in Spain who would not consider a change to green energy.
- Majorities in Europe are willing to reduce their meat consumption, but figures vary widely. Only a quarter of people in Italy and Germany are not willing to reduce their meat consumption, compared to 58 per cent of people in the Czech Republic, 50 per cent people in the US, and around 40 per cent in the Spain, the UK, Sweden and Poland.