The only way our reaction to global warming can be effective is if profound changes happen at all levels, from the societal to the individual. However, while some shifts seem to happen spontaneously (e.g. millennials cutting down on meat consumption), others face fierce opposition (e.g., carbon taxes).
Until recently, research has focused more on climate change awareness than on climate policy acceptance. But in the framework of the COP26 climate summit, several reports have been looking at people’s readiness to change their lifestyle to help tackle the climate crisis.
A Eurobarometer report published in July 2021 showed support for climate action among Europeans. And a survey dating from September 2021 by the Pew Research Center highlighted that citizens in several European countries are willing to change their lifestyle in response to climate change.
Beyond these polls, academic research on the topic has already yielded some solid evidence. One important premise is that the strength of climate action does not depend exclusively on the public’s acceptance. Still, public opinion is certainly a crucial ingredient, because a big part of the solution to the climate emergency falls on the shoulders of several rich and highly polluting countries: many of them are democracies, in which public opinion can sometimes change the course of action.
Lorraine Whitmarsh, psychologist and director of the Centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations at the University of Bath (UK), points out that: “Policymakers need to feel they have the support of the public. There is currently a strong public call for action. However, what policymakers do is only partly informed by public opinion. They are also influenced by scientific evidence, economic interest and other policy priorities.” – Read the full interview
Public opinion is shifting when it comes to environmental issues. Changes in diet, the rise of car sharing, and apps for selling second hand clothes are telltale signs of just that. COVID-19 restrictions have shown positive sides to a more sustainable lifestyle: less commuting, more home cooking, less space for cars and more for pedestrians (in order to allow for social distancing), etc.
Malcolm Fairbrother, sociologist at Umeå University (Sweden) and affiliated with the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm: “The pandemic has given people a sense that we are part of a global community and we can coordinate efforts’, and this could be applied to climate action.”
Read the full interview
Nevertheless, there are also cases of severe backlash against sustainability measures, sparked by taxes on fuel aimed at reducing emissions. The Yellow Vests movement in France is an example of this.
When asked what policies are more likely to be accepted or refused, based on the evidence available, Whitmarsh and Fairbrother give similar answers. The most acceptable policies are informational ones, such as carbon labels, climate education, carbon disclosure, etc. Pull policies – subsidies for heat pumps, insulation, electric cars or the improvement of public transport – are also supported. On the other side of the spectrum, carbon taxes and direct bans (e.g. bans on internal combustion vehicles) tend to be unpopular.
What can influence acceptance? What can policy makers do to increase it? Five variables are essential for a successful climate policy.
Freedom of choice
“Policies receive more support when they don’t eliminate choice. The more you impose restrictions, the less support you receive. But if you allow for alternatives, without complete prohibition, people will start to shift”, says Whitmarsh.
For example, studies show that a small increase in vegetarian choices in a canteen can produce a massive switch in diet, without the need to eliminate meat altogether. Whitmarsh suggests starting with low-hanging fruits (less effective policies but that retain choice) and then building up to more restriction. She points out that some restrictions see an increase in support when people experience their benefits. For example, taxes to enter a city by car are often rejected in advance, but then they gain support once city dwellers experience a cleaner and healthier environment.
In the case of carbon taxes, the public perception is often that the personal costs are too high. However, Fairbrother points out that acceptance of carbon taxes increases if compensation for the costs is in place (e.g. cutting down on other taxes), or if specific objectives are enforced (e.g. subsidising low-carbon products that consumers can choose as an alternative). Policymakers should strive for environmental results without imposing obvious costs on consumers (e.g. fuel efficiency rules make cars more expensive, but generate less opposition than direct fuel taxes).
Climate policies that exert pressure on people who are already marginalised are likely to generate backlash. On the other hand, policies that target the rich face less opposition. This is the reason why frequent flyer levies are virtually the only carbon tax that is well supported by the public, according to Whitmarsh.
However, Fairbrother points out that sometimes it is hard to find a clear cut-off that singles out the wealthy, as shown by debates around wealth and property taxes. Moreover, sometimes perceptions of fairness do not match with reality: carbon taxes may have less impact on rural residents (who are often portrayed as victims of those policies) than on people in big suburban houses.
“I would advise policymakers to think very sympathetically about workers in polluting industries and provide help ahead of closing [their places of work]”, says Fairbrother.
Trust and participation
Support for higher fossil fuel taxes depends loosely on belief in climate change, and strongly on political trust, Fairbrother points out. ‘If you think that everybody in the government is a liar, corrupt, and incompetent, you will not have confidence in them, regardless of your concern’, he says.
While building trust is a long-term endeavour, Whitmarsh points to a strategy that provides more immediate results: engaging with the public (e.g. the creation of low traffic neighbourhoods triggers less resistance when residents are involved from the beginning).
Support for a given policy also correlates with the belief that it will actually work.
“The problem is that, while people are worried about the climate, they are still unaware of the solutions that work really well”, Fairbrother says.
He believes that policymakers, think tanks, and the media should be clear with the public about the fact that carbon taxes, solar panels and rules for vehicle and building efficiency are indeed very successful.
• A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Lorraine Whitmarsh on the climate emergency
• A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Malcolm Fairbrother on the climate emergency