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Climate change complacency in Europe

Do our citizens care much about climate change? This column provides evidence that the answer is no. Using data on 70,000 randomly sampled people from the European Social Survey and the Eurobarometer, it shows that people exhibit low levels of worry about climate change, especially in cooler countries, and do not even believe that collective action would work. Climate change is viewed as less important than parochial issues such as inflation, health and social security, unemployment, and the economic situation. It appears our unborn great grandchildren may simply be left to their fate unless we can urgently find innovative ways to change people’s feelings about climate change.

If the world is to make progress in tackling anthropogenic global warming (Benton 1970, Madden and Ramanathan 1980, Chapman and Khanna 2000, Deschenes and Greenstone 2007, Stern 2007, Tol 2008, Deschenes and Kolstad 2011), human beings will have to alter how they live. 

A range of ingenious policy ideas have been suggested by economists and other social scientists (Nordhaus 1991, Weitzman 2009, Hepburn et al. 2013, Stern 2015). Yet carefully crafted proposals are of little use if voters oppose them. For innovative economic policies to garner enough support, citizens in democracies must feel deeply committed to the desirability of action on climate change (because those are likely, in the short run, to be painful for them). 

Human feelings are therefore of crucial importance. Do citizens worry enough about climate change to take action?  The evidence described below, and illustrated in Table 1 and Figures 1-3, suggests not.

On today’s Europeans’ feelings about climate change

Our recent work on the relationship between climate change and people’s feelings (Nowakowski and Oswald 2020) follows in the footsteps of research reviewed in articles such as Heal (2017) and Tol (2018), and is related to important earlier writings such as Poortinga et al. (2019) and Marquart-Pyatt et al. (2019), although the paper’s focus and key conclusions are different. Oswald and Stern (2019) recently argued that more work by economists remains to be done; it drew attention to the fact that in the case of the distinguished Quarterly Journal of Economics, for example, the journal had apparently never published a paper on climate change.  

Our IZA paper provides evidence that European concern about climate change is troublingly low. 

Only 5% of European citizens, for example, describe themselves as 'extremely worried’ by climate change. In the European Social Survey (2016), there is a lack of belief in collective action’s efficacy in combating the phenomenon.  One interpretation of the data, for example, is that large numbers of citizens take the view that the chances of success from coordinated action are not much better than 50-50.  Equally troubling are results from the Eurobarometer (2019), wherein climate change is viewed as a less important problem than parochial issues such as (i) health and social security, (ii) inflation, (iii) unemployment, and (iv) the economic situation. The topic “Environment, Climate and Energy Issues” is fifth in the ranking of societal importance, being only mentioned by 16.3% of Europeans.  In other words, approximately one in seven Europeans think of climate change as one of the two most important problems facing society. 

Table 1 Europeans do not put climate change high up in a ranking of societal issues

Notes: The sample size (N) is 28,899. The answers are ordered according to frequency of being mentioned in response to the question: “What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment? (Max. 2 answers)”. Some answers are omitted from the above table: Don’t know ‘DK’, ‘Other (SPONTANEOUS)’ and ‘None (SPONTANEOUS)’.
Source: Eurobarometer data   

Figure 1 Europeans do not exhibit high levels of worry about climate change

Notes: The vertical axis is in percentages of the population.  It draws on answers given in the 2016 European Social Survey to the question ‘How worried are you about climate change?’ Answers can lie on a one to five scale (marked from Not At All Worried, Not Very Worried, Somewhat Worried, Very Worried, up to Extremely Worried).
Source: ESS data.

Figure 2 Europeans do not think climate change would be greatly reduced if everyone limited their energy use

Notes: The vertical axis is in percentages of the population.  It draws on answers given in the 2016 European Social Survey to the question ‘Imagine that large numbers of people limited their energy use. How likely do you think it is that this would reduce climate change?’ Answers can lie on a zero to 10 scale (marked from Not At All Likely up to Extremely Likely).
Source: ESS data.

Figure 3 Evidence of particularly low levels of worry in cooler countries

Notes: The vertical axis draws on answers in the European Social Survey to the question ‘How worried are you about climate change?’ Answers can lie on a one to five scale (marked from Not At All Worried up to Extremely Worried). The dots in the figure are country-dummy coefficients calculated using a regression-equation specification as in Table 3 of the IZA discussion paper by Nowakowski and Oswald (2020).  The average temperature is from If the East European nations are excluded here, the slope of the fitted line remains almost unchanged at y = -0.122 + 0.016x.  If Russia alone is excluded, the above gradient increases a little but the paper’s results are not greatly affected.
Source: ESS data.

For policymakers and environmentalists, these findings imply that although climate change concerns are not zero, it is parochial economic considerations that matter to most citizens.  The evidence is thus that voters are not going to tolerate painful measures to reduce climate change.

Is there any reason for optimism?

Could this level of apparent complacency be a uniquely European phenomenon? As Europe has some of the highest education levels in the world, we think the continent makes a natural testing ground for an empirical inquiry into feelings sentiments towards the warming planet. Given Europeans do not especially care, and are unconvinced of an urgent need for change, there is perhaps little reason to have optimism about most other parts of the world. 

When people say, “I am somewhat worried about climate change”, an optimist might propose that they are actually expressing a really strong level of concern – one strong enough to mean a potentially painful climate change policy could successfully be pushed through in Western democracies. On this interpretation, Europe might be severely worried about the changing climate, but its citizens could simply be using mild language to describe the problem. That possibility deserves to be taken scientifically seriously.

However, the second data set, the Eurobarometer Survey, helps us to adjudicate on, and throws some direct doubt upon, that type of optimistic interpretation. But even with the ESS data set itself, there are reasons to be doubtful of a sanguine account. First, it might be expected that the proportions of individuals who claim they care about climate change are over-estimates. It is known that when humans respond to surveys, they feel under pressure to give politically correct answers. This is the famous problem of ‘social desirability bias’ (Fisher 1993). As the questions in the ESS survey data set may thus be interpreted by people as encouraging socially responsible answers (a form of ‘priming effect’, where respondents are aware they are ‘meant’ to give a particular answer), the fact that there is no evidence of high levels of concern about the climate is suggestive of, below the surface, a potentially larger and hidden problem of climate-change complacency within the European population.

Policy implications for economists who do care

How should economic policymakers react to these troubling findings? One approach to a solution – although economists are little used to thinking this way – might be to exploit public-information programmes as a key policy instrument (as advocated in Weiss and Tschirhart 1994 and studies since). 

This was, in part, the approach taken by the health authorities of the world on the issue of smoking, and there is randomized-controlled-trial evidence of its success in the domain of cigarette smoking cessation (e.g. Brewer et al. 2016, Noar et al. 2016; Hall et al. 2020). In that case, governments produced large amounts of public information on the dangers of smoking. They provided their countries – and still do – with fierce warnings about the need to quit cigarettes. That kind of public information programme was coupled with fiscal incentives. Yet arguably it was the information programme that first changed people’s feelings and beliefs, and thereby, indirectly, allowed politicians eventually to push through the tax schemes on cigarette smoking.


There is little point in designing sophisticated economic policies for combatting climate change until voters feel that climate change is a deeply disturbing problem. Currently, those voters do not.  

If we are to help save the natural world for our great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren, we are going to have to figure out how to change citizens’ feelings about climate change. That is the challenge we face.


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