Climate change still matters to people
In December 2019, we ran a study of over 5,000 people across the UK, Germany and Ireland, to understand attitudes towards climate change.
Since then, Covid-19 has caused huge disruption around the world. It’s pushed many people down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – suddenly shifting them from a stable life into one in which there are uncertainties around the basic physiological needs at the bottom level of the pyramid.
We might assume that in this context, people will be less concerned with climate change, if they are dealing with nearer-in concerns. But there are indicators people still care.
According to Google Trends, in the 90 days mid-January to mid-April 2020, global search interest in “How to live a sustainable lifestyle” increased by more than 4,550%. Meanwhile, IPSOS survey data (fielded mid-April 2020) indicates that 71% of people globally believe that in the long term, climate change is as serious as Covid-19.
We might take pleasure in cleaner outside air during lockdown restrictions, but perhaps we know that this won’t last as we return to living and travelling outside the home.
We can surmise that now economic uncertainty and health anxiety may crowd out the thinking for many – as further IPSOS data shows, in April 2020, coronavirus was by far the top concern globally, followed by unemployment and healthcare. But climate change is still a top ten concern. It’s worth noting here that the question asks which topics you find most worrying in your country, which may have a dampening effect on responses to climate change relative to more clearly country-level issues such as poverty and social inequality, crime and violence and education.
Covid-19 may push climate change anxiety to the background as we firefight immediate personal issues and see exposed frailties in our local and national systems in this time of acute pressure. But we believe that by now concern about climate change has built up such a head of steam that while it may be relatively less of a worry in the here and now, we are clear now that it’s not going away, and it’s a problem for the longer-term.
83% of people cite that pressure on the healthcare system due to climate change was their top concern
71% of people were concerned about the threat to human life posed by climate change
If we were to run our climate change survey now, we may get slightly different numbers, but we do not expect we would get a totally different picture. Apart from taking (sadly misguided) solace in cleaner air as a meaningful indication we’re getting climate change under control, or finding hope in the movement to #buildbackbetter, there is no reason for people to feel better about climate change. They may just be relatively less concerned.
So it’s safe to assume that they’re still really concerned, as they were in December 2019. In our survey, 72% of people (across nationally representative samples covering UK, Ireland and Germany) expressed concern about climate change. Pressure on healthcare systems was the top concern (83%), followed by plastic pollution in oceans (81%) and deforestation (74%). Interesting to note here that people exhibited more anxiety about key facets of environmental degradation and contributing factors to climate change than the bigger issue of climate change itself.
The concern got more specific too. Seventy-one percent of people were concerned about the threat to human life posed by climate change, 70% about the risks to physical health and 64% about the risks to mental wellbeing. There was also strong concern about threats to economic stability (65%) resulting from climate change.
But companies are not seen to be doing enough. Seventy-three percent could not name a single company they believed to be doing well to address climate change, while only 20% were confident companies were doing enough to tackle climate change (vs 24% being confident in their government). More damningly, only 18% indicated that they trusted what companies tell them about their efforts to address the issue.
As we emerge from Covid-19 with weakened economies and lighter personal wallets, and likely with a raft of fall-outs to deal with over time (e.g. mental health crises, the risk of future lockdowns until a vaccine can be found and rolled out, challenges getting some disenfranchised children back into education and society) we will need to take a step back and think afresh about how we talk about climate change to people.
It’s crucial that we continue to engage them. It’s crucial that we show them that climate change still matters. But we must ensure our messages and the solutions we develop are fit for the times we live in now. We may struggle to get consumers to buy into premiumised ‘greener’ solutions if they have less money to spend. We may find it challenging to get them to lift their thinking into the longer term if they are struggling to see their way to the end of the year.
However we proceed, it’s safe to assume that concern about climate change has not gone away, but undoubtedly it sits in a different context to that of just a few months ago and we cannot assume that we will be able to connect with people in the ways we did before.
But let’s also consider – we weren’t always getting it right before. The high anxiety we were seeing in our survey should give us pause for thought. It might be seen as a positive that people are concerned- we might say, after all, this is an issue we should be concerned about. But concern is a fundamentally passive emotion, as psychologist Per Espen Stocknes has highlighted. It leads to fatigue and inaction.
And as our survey also showed, while people overwhelmingly indicated that they wanted to make more responsible consumer choices, they also reported that they struggled with conflicting information and the complexity of making ‘the right choices’. And let’s remember: they don’t think companies are doing enough.
We might hope that the positive energy of #buildbackbetter can find its way into the way we engage with consumers. We need to find ways to stimulate their involvement in this challenge, in a way that drives change. Just as now presents the ideal time to rethink our economies, now is the ideal time to rethink how we involve people from the grassroots in making the change we need.