Research

Europeans acknowledge climate change but are unwilling to compromise their interests

According to Professor Pekka Jokinen, documented information on climate attitudes tells how legitimate political measures are.

Europeans admit that the climate change is caused by human actions but are reluctant to compromise their interests. Accepting limitations to the use of fossil fuels seems to be the most contested aspect.

Pekka Jokinen, professor of environmental policy at Tampere University, finds it surprising that worries about the climate are the greatest in South European countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Jokinen’s views are based on the European Social Survey on the public attitudes to climate change, which mapped the energy and climate attitudes of Europeans in 23 countries. Many countries have conducted their own climate surveys, but this is the first extensive survey on the European level. Data from approximately 44,000 respondents was collected between 2016 and 2017.

At the end of 2018, Pekka Jokinen’s research group published a report based on the findings. Coordinated by the Academy of Finland, the researchers received ERA.Net RUS Plus funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 Framework Programme.

Documented information to support climate policies

Jokinen says that the survey results are significant for the social acceptability of climate policies.

“Successful policy tools are based on citizens’ acceptance. We have European examples of things going wrong when there is no legitimacy,” Jokinen says.

Jokinen finds it positive that documented information now exists that shows how citizens find the climate change undeniable and caused by human actions. It should thus not be necessary to keep on arguing about this basic fact.

Climate concerns are the greatest in South Europe

The details of the climate survey show differences between countries. It was surprising that people are the most concerned about climate issues in South European countries. Jokinen thinks that one possible explanation is that drought and forest fires have disrupted everyday life in them.

The researchers had the preconceived idea that climate concerns would be the most prominent in the Nordic countries. However, citizens in for example Sweden and Russia had almost similar profiles. In this survey, France turned out to be one of the concerned South European countries despite the yellow jackets’ movement that has demonstrated about fuels prices and thus supported climate change in the recent months.

The lowest level of worries was found in Russia and such Central and Eastern European countries as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Lithuania.

Raising taxes on fossil fuels is hard

The reality of climate change is widely acknowledged but there is variance in how people think the problem should be tackled.

“This survey does not support the idea that giving up fossil fuels will be easy,” Jokinen says.

People endorse various climate solutions, but raising tax on fossil fuels seems to be as far as they are willing to go.

“When renewable energies are supported or the use of the most energy consuming gadgets is limited, the measures receive more support from the public because these things are not so important in everyday life. But when you start talking about raising taxes on fossil fuels, people become more critical,” Jokinen explains.

In welfare states, such as Finland and Sweden, where the state has traditionally played a stronger role, raising taxes is more acceptable than in the rest of Europe. East European citizens are the most critical of taxes.

High GDP, the equal distribution of income and strong political trust all contribute to more positive attitudes towards measures that curb the climate change.

For example, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland are countries with high political trust, favourable economic developments and relatively equal income distribution.

Germans do not believe in climate actions

European citizens do not seem to believe that others are doing their share in the battle against climate change or that governments are also playing a role.

According to the survey results, not even the majority of Finns or Swedes believe that the climate change could be solved by collective measures or governmental actions.

Jokinen is surprised by how the Germans turned out to be the most sceptical in their belief in collective solutions to climate change.

“The result is strange because Germany has traditionally been the frontrunner in European environmental policies. No background variable is able to tell us directly where such pessimism comes from,” Jokinen says.

Raising fuel taxes is most easily accepted in countries where citizens have high trust in society. The same was not repeated in the question concerning faith in the collective means to curb the climate change.

Previous studies have shown that women are more inclined towards climate policies and the young more than older people. Jokinen’s group will continue analysing these socio-demographic variations in forthcoming publications.

Russians are passive in climate change issues

The European climate survey is made even more interesting by the fact that Russia was also included. The results show that the Russians were the least concerned group and that measures for combatting climate change are not very familiar to them.

“Russians have stronger reactions to energy issues, but the public opinion on climate matters is rather passive,” Jokinen says.

Among the analysed countries, Russia has the most climate sceptical citizens, 18%, followed by Israel (14%), Lithuania (11%) and the Czech Republic (11%).

The results may naturally also be read the other way round that 82% of Russians acknowledge the existence of climate change.

“It would be totally unfair to say that the majority of citizens in Russia do not clearly recognise climate change; the survey comparison was about the overall profile of the countries,” Jokinen explains.

Climate policies lack concrete manifestations

The climate question looks like an issue that will be raised in the Finnish general election and the European elections this spring. As a long-term environmental researcher, Jokinen is rather sceptical about politicians’ actions.

“Environmental themes sound a great topic to raise in election campaigns, but when the talk should be converted into concrete actions, it dies out. The parties are struggling on how climate policies should be included among election themes, but there is much indefinite talk that does not impress me even if the issue is actually raised in the political debate,” Jokinen points out.

However, Jokinen finds the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last autumn a significant step forward because it increased interest in climate matters in one go.

Jokinen compares the resulting climate awareness with awareness about the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea, which took a great leap forward in 1997. The process of protecting the Baltic Sea already started in the early 1970s, but it was not until the bad blue algae bloom 25 years later that raised public awareness in Finland.

Similar developments seem to be happening now. Global climate policies have been formulated since the early 1990s, but it was not until the IPCC report last year that put the political and public focus on the issue.

“I see these two themes as analogous. The purpose of political promises is to convince people; yet it may be hard to convince researchers. However, the public debate on climate change has really started now,” Jokinen says.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli
Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Pasi Pohjolainen, Iida Kukkonen, Pekka Jokinen, Wouter Poortinga, Resul Umit: Public Perceptions on Climate Change and Energy in Europe and Russia: Public Perceptions on Climate Change and Energy in Europe and Russia: November 2018