How are climate change perceptions influenced by the economy and extreme weather events?

By: Kentaro Asai, Francesca Borgonovi and Sarah Wildi, OECD Centre for Skills

In the northern hemisphere, the last summer was characterised by major climate disasters, including heat waves, droughts, flooding, and wildfires. The southern hemisphere is preparing to face similar disruptions in the coming months. Such events served as a reminder that climate change is taking place and that urgent action is required to transition to a net-zero economy. Can the renewed urgency for action on climate change continue in the context of high energy prices and the increasing cost of living? 

Successfully implementing climate change mitigation policies both locally and internationally requires an understanding of the extent to which individuals see climate change as a threat and consider climate action a priority. Mobilising large-scale international support for climate action requires on the one hand understanding how the public in different countries perceives climate change and on the other what factors shape individuals’ attitudes towards climate change and the environment more generally. Governments need to know how individuals understand and perceive climate change in order to anticipate environmental behaviour and determine which policies (if any) citizens would be prepared to support and how ambitious such policies could be.

The newly released OECD Working Paper uses data from the Wellcome Global Monitor 2020, the European Social Survey (Round 8), World Values Survey, Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT), as well as industry-level CO2 emissions data from the International Monetary Fund and unemployment data from the OECD to examine how public perceptions vary both within and across countries. The study also details how individuals’ attitudes are associated with engagement in pro-environmental behaviours and support for environmentally friendly policies.

Mapping variations in attitudes to enhance cooperation and identify the “weakest links”

Different countries and actors need to have a similar understanding of climate change and similar threat perceptions to effectively coordinate and implement climate change policies. Yet in many countries and across countries there is a polarisation of attitudes towards climate change, a polarisation that threatens cooperation because vocal minorities who may not understand or apprehend the importance of acting on climate change may halt effective policymaking and reform initiatives.

On average, 84% of adults across OECD countries report that they understand climate change “fairly well” or “very well”. Yet, self-reported understanding of climate change is varied across countries with 94% of adults in Belgium reporting that they understand climate change “fairly well” or “very well”, and 62% reporting the same in the Czech Republic. Variation between countries is even greater with regards to threat perception. In Mexico and Italy, for instance, nearly 90% of adults regard climate change as a major threat but only around 44% of adults report the same in the Czech Republic. Such differences across countries in understanding of climate change and in threat perception exemplifies why cooperation across countries can be so challenging.

But important differences also exist within countries. In particular, individuals who obtained tertiary level qualifications or who have a high income are more likely to report having a good understanding of climate change and are more likely to perceive climate change to be a threat than individuals who only completed secondary school, those who did not complete secondary school, and individuals on low incomes. Marked differences in perceptions of climate change exist across different industries in which individuals work in. Individuals who work in CO2-intensive industries are less likely to support the implementation of pro-environmental policies, are less likely to report believing in climate change, and are less worried about climate change than those working in the least CO2-emitting sectors. The study also finds that these differences do not simply reflect compositional differences, such as, for example, differences in average levels of educational attainment of workers in different sectors. On average, tertiary-level educated individuals who work in the most CO2-emitting sectors may have lower levels of understanding of climate change and report being less worried about climate change than individuals with the same education level who work in the least CO2-emitting sectors.

Perhaps unexpectedly, our results also reveal that within countries self-reported understandings of climate change and perceptions of the threat posed by climate change do not differ across age groups and that women are only marginally more likely to perceive climate change as a threat than men and only in some countries.

Unemployment levels shape how much the environment is considered as a priority

As world leaders and environmental activists consider how best to mobilise support for environmental action, the world has been shaken by extreme heat, wildfires, droughts and floods as well as economic instability, disruption of global value chains, and increases in living and production costs. Promoting inclusive green growth policies is possible and desirable, but requires careful policy design. The type and design of climate policy strongly determine the level of support climate policies receive. This is especially important because analyses suggest that when asked to prioritise either the environment or the economy, individuals will be more likely to prioritise the economy at times of adverse economic conditions, such as when levels of unemployment are high. The relevance of unemployment levels over the extent to which individuals report being inclined to prioritise the economy over the environment is higher among individuals with low levels of educational attainment and low incomes. They are in fact most likely to be penalised by negative economic conditions. At the same time, all socio-economic groups report being less willing to prioritise the environment over the economy at times of high unemployment, suggesting that the impact of unemployment on the environment-economy debate is not limited only to those groups who are most personally vulnerable to high levels of unemployment. By contrast, we find that individuals are more likely to prioritise the environment over the economy when they have more extensive experience with natural-hazard induced disasters and when these disasters have significant humanitarian consequences. In times of high unemployment, green recovery policies, such as investments in green infrastructure and subsidies for clean technologies that have been found to be strongly supported across countries, can be effective tools of achieving the double objective of accelerating economic growth and reducing emissions.

Significance for policy makers

The negative correlation between unemployment rate and pro-environmental attitudes across all socio-economic groups but in particular those that are less educated and have lower incomes, indicates that political division over climate change is not purely a question of ideology or knowledge. Instead, political differences regarding climate change have a substantial economic dimension pertaining to inequality in economic security and well-being. These findings imply that it is important to implement economic and social policies to ensure that the green transition is a just transition, if ambitious climate-change action is to be successfully implemented and supported in the long term. The results reported in this work also suggest that, other things being equal, public support for climate change mitigation policies tends to increase following climate-change related disasters and to decrease during periods of high unemployment.

In 2008 and 2011, the OECD carried out large-scale household surveys on Environmental Policies and Individual Behaviour Change (EPIC) to explore the drivers of household environmental behaviours and the extent to which public policies influence household decisions. The surveys also measured public perceptions of climate change and other environmental issues. The OECD will soon release an overview of results from the third round of the EPIC survey, which will benchmark public opinion and engagement in environmental behaviours in the current economic, environmental and political context. The survey covers four environmentally relevant areas, specifically energy use, food consumption, mobility and waste practices. It will also generate insights regarding how best to mobilise public support for climate change mitigation policies and to implement policy initiatives that enable a just and inclusive green transition.

Further reading:

Understanding how economic conditions and natural disasters shape environmental attitudes. A cross-country comparison to inform policy making https://doi.org/10.1787/8e880ea2-en

Fighting climate change: International attitudes toward climate policies. https://doi.org/10.1787/3406f29a-en

The OECD EPIC household survey: https://www.oecd.org/environment/households.htm

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