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by Andrew Oswald

The recent flooding in Germany and wildfires in North America are a reminder that if we are to avoid tragedy in the future, society needs to make progress in tackling global warming. Human beings will have to alter how they live. That is likely to be painful. People will not be pleased about having to pay more for their travel, fuel, heating and lighting – and having to alter their lifestyles to do and use all those things less. So, are our citizens ready and willing to make climate change a major priority? Recent data suggests – worryingly – the answer is no.

With Adam Nowakowski, I examined data from the Eurobarometer Survey of 2019. This survey asked approximately 30,000 randomly chosen respondents across Europe to choose the two societal issues they consider to be the most important. There is a long list of 13 possibilities to choose from. This dataset has a special advantage because it asks respondents about their ranking of different kinds of problems in society. While anyone can say in an abstract sense, ‘yes, I think something should be done about climate change’, this survey gives us the opportunity to understand how many people see an urgent need for change in environmental policy. The key question is whether citizens will tolerate tackling environmental and climate issues by giving up something else (as will be necessary).

As we might expect, different people prioritise different topics. But the ranking of the results is revealing (Table 1). The most mentioned national problem is that of Health and Social Security: 25.8% of Europeans emphasise this. The least mentioned national problem is that of Terrorism: 4.4% of Europeans emphasise this. Environment, Climate and Energy Issues come only fifth in the ranking of societal importance. It is mentioned by 16.3% of Europeans. In other words, only approximately one in seven Europeans think of climate change as one of the two most important problems facing society. Climate concerns are ranked lower than priorities about Health and Social Security, Inflation, the Economic Situation, and Unemployment.

For policymakers and environmentalists, this implies that personal economic considerations matter to people much more than environmental and climate concerns. A small percentage of citizens put high weight on the problem of global warming. Yet most Europeans do not. The typical citizen is instead focused on their own economic interests.

To take steps forward in the fight against climate change, policymakers will need to alter people’s feelings about it. Right now, European citizens are not ready for policies that might cause upheaval to their daily lives. But education is needed to alter perceptions about the urgency of this environmental crisis. If we fail to encourage individuals to care more about climate change, our grandchildren, and especially their grandchildren, could be in severe peril.

Table 1: What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?
About the author

Andrew Oswald is Professor of Economics and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick and a CAGE Senior Research Fellow


Further reading

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