Perception of climate change

In the face of climate change, concern is growing, but so is skepticism

The climate is a major concern, and can even cause anger and demoralization

The climate issue is gradually establishing itself as a major environmental challenge. The question of waste, packaging and plastic is still at the top of the list of concerns (46%), especially in the Southern countries; but its score has dropped back by 6 pts since 2019, a year when there was heavy media coverage of plastic pollution.

For its part, climate change has grown by 4 pts over the same period, although no growth was recorded this year. This is especially surprising given the sharp growth in the score for “extreme climate events” between 2019 and 2020 (+5 pts), but not this year. All in all, four ecological threats can be said to exist today, each mentioned at between 40% and 46%: waste, climate, disasters, pollution.

The climate disasters of 2020 have nevertheless had an effect in the countries most impacted by these extreme weather events, with a noticeable growth in mentions in 2020 in Canada (53%, +5pts), Germany (49%, +5pts) and Belgium (49%, +6pts) – but not in Australia.

Almost three-quarters of the world’s population feel worried (72%), across all generations, even among climate skeptics (50% of them claim to be worried), and women a little more than men (75% c.f. 68%). Aside from this sense of worry, which concerns a large share of the population but may be felt at varying levels, four types of attitude can be distinguished:

  • Positive (optimistic or confident): 33%
  • Neutral (indifferent, skeptical or no answer): 32%
  • Angry: 30%
  • Demoralized: 26% (1)

The generational profile of individuals who feel angry is not very clear and in any case it would be wrong to describe the younger age groups as an “angry generation,” at least on an international scale. 33% of under-25s feel angry as opposed to 30% of the over-45s, i.e. a small difference. Young Europeans and Americans are a little more so, but concern is clearly the dominant attitude everywhere. In certain countries, a sense of demoralization is experienced by 40% or more of the population (Italy, Poland, Turkey, Spain). In Europe, supporters of green and leftist parties experience this feeling more often.

 

And even so, climate skepticism has tended to grow in the last two years

In fact, climate change is still viewed as a tangible reality in the region where the respondents live (77%), particularly in the Southern countries. It primarily takes the form of heatwaves (the phenomenon the most widely observed, regardless of the location) and a disruption of the seasons (particularly in Europe).

However, the balance of power between climate change believers and climate skeptics (66% to 34%) has evolved in defiance of all logic in the past two years: skeptics have grown by 3 points(2) . The USA, which has returned to its 2019 level of skepticism after skyrocketing at the end of the Trump presidency, still counts among the most climate skeptic countries in the world. In Australia and Canada, countries that have suffered extreme events in recent years that were attributed to climate change, awareness has grown, but slowly: +5pts compared to 2019 in Canada, +3pts in Australia (but there are still 42% of skeptics in this country).

Contrary to the very commonly held belief that international youth are leading pro-climate mobilization, differences in perception of climate change according to generation are still small (65% to 68% of climate change believers according to age). Among the younger generation, young Europeans and young South Americans are the most convinced about climate change (71% and 77% c.f. 68% of 16-24-year-olds in North America and in Asia, 58% in the Middle East/Africa), since young people in the Middle East and Africa have less access to information.

 

Why aren’t climate disasters causing climate skepticism to drop back?

The survey shows that people claiming to have experienced heatwaves, storms or flooding are more sensitive to the environment, to climate change, and are more likely to believe that it is of human origin.

However, it is possible to witness disasters and even think that a big change in climate is occurring, yet still deny that humans are responsible for it. Which has direct effects on acceptance of a change in life style for example.

But above all, it is possible that climate-related disasters or events are not obvious to everyone. This is very evident in small countries where weather-related disasters inevitably impact most inhabitants: climate skeptics are two times less likely to think that they have witnessed climate change than climate change believers. Hence in Belgium, which suffered dramatic flooding this year, 73% of climate change believers claim to have seen signs of this change in their country, as opposed to only 36% among skeptics. Same phenomenon in Germany (82% c.f. 41%), France (74% c.f. 40%) and in Europe as a whole (80% c.f. 44%), and also in North America (90% c.f. 47%).

And even among those who have observed the effects of global warming in their country, significantly fewer climate skeptics have been confronted with a heatwave, drought, disruption of seasons, etc. than climate change believers. In other words, climate skepticism is not just an information problem: it is a different interpretation of reality, an interpretation grid imprinted with denial.

(1) The total is higher than 100% since people can experience several feelings at the same time.
(2) Remember that climate skeptics as we define them in the survey are people who reject the very existence of climate change (9%) and those who, while not denying its existence, believe that it is not caused by human activity (25%), i.e. 34% of the population questioned.