Attitudes to Climate Change: Insights from the European Social Survey Round 10

Dr Ebru Isikli, UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy

The paper is also available to download here.

Introduction

The ESS (European Social Survey) is a cross-national survey that has been conducted across Europe since 2002. A team of social science researchers at UCD’s Geary Institute for Public Policy are the National Coordinators of the ESS in Ireland. In this paper, ESS data is used to examine whether attitudes to climate change have shifted between 2016-2021, with a focus on Ireland. Understanding attitudes to climate change is important as the State of Climate Action Report (WRI, 2023) found that global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5ºC are “failing across the board”, with 41 out of 42 indicators not on track to meet their 2030 targets (the exception being sales of electric vehicles).

In 2016, ESS Round 8 had a special module on Climate Change that examined what participants think about energy policy at a national level and how they manage their daily energy usage. It also included questions on climate change, and behavioural change solutions to reduce the pace of climate change. A report of the main results from that module can be found within the topline series of ESS. These questions on climate change were repeated in 2021,[i] Round 10; facilitating this examination of how attitudes have changes over recent years.

When the data was being collected for ESS Round 10, the pandemic and other global challenges were at the forefront of people’s minds. It was a time when people around the world were more concerned about polycrisis (pandemic, migration, wildfires, earthquakes). Resilience has become one of the main concerns for policymakers to think about the coping skills of citizens facing these crises.

Methodology

The ESS is a survey hosted by academic institutions and it has been conducted across Europe for 20 years.[ii] It is funded by national research councils and conducted every two years using a representative sample of national populations. The core questionnaire measures public attitudes and behaviour in each country via 163 questions. Each round includes two rotating modules, measuring specific topics that are of key societal interest at the time of the round (such as well-being, migration, democracy). The data is provided as open access so that researchers, policy makers and the media can use the results to assess current and evolving societal views on key issues. To date, more than 200,000 users have registered including policy-makers, journalists, academics and students.[iii] The ESS has been a European Research Infrastructure Consortium since 2013. Round 11 is currently progressing in 33 countries and expected to be released in June 2024.

The results presented in this paper are based on face-to-face data collection[iv] from ESS Data Round 10 (2021) and Round 8 (2016). In ESS Round 10, face-to face mode data comprised of data from 22 countries. 17 of those countries were in ESS8 and these are used when comparing countries. The weight provided in the data (anweight) was used to present representative results.[v]

Findings

The findings from the special module on climate change in ESS Round 8 in 2016 had made it clear that the majority of people think that climate change is real and that it has a negative impact on people (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Do you think world’s climate is changing? (1- Definitely Changing – 5- Definitely not changing) & How good or bad do you think the impact of climate change will be on people across the world? (0-Extremly bad – 10-Extremly good) – ESS8 (2016)

In ESS8 (2016), 92% of respondents acknowledged that the world’s climate is changing. Despite a high level of recognition of climate change, the percentage of people who think it is bad is lower. 71% viewed climate change negatively (rated 0-4). Those results align with the Eurobarometer’s results on climate change perspective wherein 77% of respondents think that climate change is a serious problem. In the context of seeking possible policy responses and solutions, the following questions after those two were used to gain insights into public perceptions regarding the underlying causes of climate change and to ascertain how these beliefs influence their receptiveness towards proposed solutions for changes in the daily practices.

Figure 2: Climate change caused by natural processes, human activity, or both? ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

The percentage of those attributing climate change primarily to human activities increased to 53% in ESS10 (2021) compared to 45% in ESS8 (2016). This data suggests an evolving awareness and acceptance of the reality and anthropogenic nature of climate change over the five-year period. The increase in those attributing it to human activity reflects a positive trend towards acknowledging the need for collective action to address this global challenge. However, one would expect it to see a higher increase considering the scientific reports showing human activity as driving factors in a great consensus (Jacobs et al., 2021; Pörtner et al., 2022).

Figure 3: Climate change caused by natural processes, human activity, or both? By Country –ESS10 (2021)

Participant countries may have different social, economic, or cultural factors influencing their perceptions of global issues. The figure above shows the percentage of the respondents in each country answering the question: ‘what causes climate change?’. Like the results in ESS8 (2016), most countries, more than 90%, think that human activity partly or totally caused climate change; only Czechia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro record less than 90% in ESS10 (2021).

Figure 4: Climate change caused by natural processes, human activity, or both? Ireland – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

In ESS10 (2021), the tendency to think that climate change is caused by human activity remained the same in Ireland, while it increased in general in Europe compared to ESS8 (2016). Looking more closely at the Irish data, people above secondary education level (47%), and those living in the urban areas (50%), believe significantly more that climate change is caused entirely/mainly by human activity. The report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finds a higher result for human factors (60%) in Ireland, however the report also confirms that the percentage increases for people with higher education and those living in urban areas (Climate Change in the Irish Mind – Wave 1 2021 – Demographic Summary, 2021, p. 3). It is possible that the difference is due to the difference in the interview mode.[vi]

Figure 5: How worried are you about climate change? By Country – ESS10 (2021)

Figure 5 (above) reflects the varying levels of concern about climate change across different countries in ESS10 (2021). The highest levels of worry about climate change are observed in Portugal (53%), and Slovenia (50%). These countries show a particularly strong collective concern about the impacts of climate change. Conversely, Estonia and Slovakia demonstrate the lowest levels of worry about climate change, with only 25% and 23% respectively. Slovakia also has the biggest proportion of people who are not worried at all (38%). Those countries also record a below-average proportion of the population who consider that the cause of climate change is human activity. 

Figure 6: How worried are you about climate change? Ireland – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

Specifically for Ireland, there is also a substantial difference in concern about climate change between ESS8 (2016) and ESS10 (2021). In ESS8 (2016), only 20% of the population expressed high concern, which jumped to 32% in ESS10 (2021). However, in both rounds the proportion of highly worried people is smaller than what has been found across all of the ESS participating countries. The total percentage of people worried to any level (79%) including ‘worried’ and ‘somewhat worried’ participants increased 10 points in ESS10 (2021) compared to ESS8 (2016) in Ireland (69%). The EPA finds a higher (85%) results than ESS10 (79%), this may also be due to the different interview modes (Climate Change in the Irish Mind – Wave 1 2021 – Demographic Summary, 2021, p. 4).

Reports have highlighted that the primary drivers of climate change are corporations and the residents of affluent nations, with human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, key contributors (Friedrich & Damassa, 2014; Gore, 2020; Pörtner et al., 2022; Vigna & Friedrich, 2023). Some corporations have, regrettably, capitalised on the burgeoning demand for sustainability, employing deceptive greenwashing tactics (Timmons et al., 2023). To safeguard our planet, we need a fundamental shift away from profit-driven corporate strategies that come at the expense of the environment. Yet, this does not negate the fact that a sustainable future hinges on societal transformation, including our daily routines. Choosing public transport and opting for eco-friendly products are vital steps that each individual can take (e.g. transport accounts for 15% of greenhouse glass emissions, see IPCC, 2023). 6 in 10 EU citizens have taken action to reduce climate change over the past six months according to the Eurobarometer. However, we must acknowledge that relying solely on individual choices will not suffice for meaningful climate change mitigation. Carbon guilt tripping can also be a part of marketing strategies of corporations doing greenwashing and giving us a false sense of agency. Changing daily practices collectively would make a difference and require formal regulations. In ESS, we asked people to what extent they feel personal responsibility to reduce climate change, to what extent large numbers of people would change their behaviour, and to ascertain their views on governmental responsibility in that change.

Figure 7: To what extent do you feel a personal responsibility to try to reduce climate change? – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)[vii]

Figure 7 (above) indicates a significant increase in perceived personal responsibility to mitigate climate change from ESS8 (2016) to ESS10 (2021). In ESS8 (2016), 54% of respondents felt a personal responsibility, whereas in 2021, this figure jumped to 70% in ESS10 (2021).

Figure 8: To what extent do you feel personal responsibility to reduce climate change? Means on a scale of 0-10  – By Country – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

When we compare countries that participated in both ESS8 (2016) and ESS10 (2021), we see that feeling personally responsible for climate change has increased in all participating countries (see Figure 8). Slovenia, Italy, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary and Czechia feel lower levels of responsibility compared to what has been found across all of the ESS participating countries in both ESS8 (2016) and ESS10 (2021), although they also experienced the increase.

Table 1: Level of worry and feeling responsible for climate change – By Country – ESS10 (2021)

Feeling worried doesn’t always go hand in hand with feeling personal responsibility. Table.1 (above) presents an intriguing juxtaposition between levels of concern (expressed as “Worried”) and perceived personal responsibility to reduce climate change. Portugal stands out with the highest level of worry at 53%, yet its perceived responsibility score is lower compared to some other countries. This might suggest that while there is a heightened sense of concern about climate change, there are varying levels of belief in individual agency to affect change. On the other hand, countries like Norway and Ireland demonstrate a relatively high perceived responsibility, despite having lower percentages of individuals expressing worry about climate change. This could indicate a strong belief in individual action and responsibility in these nations.

Figure 9: Personal responsibility and collective change – Means on a scale of 0-10 – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

Individuals express the highest level of confidence in their own ability to act against climate change. The sense of personal responsibility to reduce climate change increased from 5.57 in ESS8 (2016) to 6.53 in ESS10 (2021). While there has been an increase in respondents’ sense of personal responsibility, as per ESS10 (2021) findings, the Eurobarometer results suggest that people believe that the primary responsibility in combating climate change lies with governments, the EU, and the business and industry sectors (Eurobarometer, 2023).

The belief that large numbers of people limiting energy use could effectively reduce climate change also saw an increase, from 5.51 in ESS8 (2016) to 5.92 in ESS10 (2021). There is a slightly lower level of confidence in collective efforts. This suggests that while individuals believe in the power of collective action, they may also recognise the challenges of coordinating and mobilising large groups of people. Despite personal and collective confidence, there is a lower perceived realism in the practical implementation of climate change measures. However, respondents’ assessment of how likely it is for large numbers of people to limit energy use increased from 4.05 in ESS8 (2016) to 4.38 in ESS10 (2021). The belief in likelihood that governments in enough countries will take action to reduce climate change also saw an increase, from 4.43 in ESS8 (2016) to 4.7 in ESS10 (2021). However, this is very low, with the overall level of confidence remaining below the midpoint of the scale. This indicates that respondents still have reservations about the effectiveness and commitment of governments worldwide in addressing this issue.

Figure 10: Personal responsibility and collective change – means on scale 0-10 – Ireland – ESS8 (2016) – ESS10 (2021)

In Ireland, respondents exhibit a heightened sense of personal responsibility and a stronger belief that an effort among a large number of individuals to limit energy consumption would effectively combat climate change. Moreover, there is a higher level of confidence in the government’s capacity to take meaningful action compared to the European average. Even though Ireland has higher scores than average, the results are not high (around 5 on a 0-10 scale).

Figure 11: Personal responsibility and collective change –  means on scale 0-10 – By Demography – Ireland – ESS10 (2021)

The climate movement has brought young people to the forefront as protesters (see e.g. Fridays for Future) who ask the general public and responsible bodies to pay attention to the seriousness of the crisis, often with unexpected ways of protesting for example at spaces for art performance. However, there was no significant age difference, either in Ireland or in general, in terms of feeling individually responsible to reduce climate change and having more confidence in collective and governmental action to reduce climate change.

Conclusion

The special module on climate change in ESS8 (2016) and follow-up questions in ESS10 (2021) allows us to track the changes in public perspectives on this issue over recent years in the context of growing international attention and agreement on this issue. The percentage of people thinking that climate change is caused by human activity increased by 8 points (53%) in Europe generally while Ireland’s rates remained the same (40%). There is also a substantial increase in the proportion of people worried to any level about climate change both in Europe (6 points) in general and in Ireland (11 points). However, Ireland (73%) remains below the average (83%) with the any level of worry about the climate change crisis as ESS8 (2016).

The proportion of people feeling personal responsibility to reduce climate change (70%) has increased by 16 points in Europe. Worries about climate change and feeling personally responsible do not operate in a parallel manner for all countries. Ireland demonstrates a relatively high perceived responsibility (IE 5.8 – EU 5.6), despite having lower percentages of individuals expressing any level of worry about climate change (IE 73% – EU 83%).

A growing belief in the power of collective action to limit energy consumption is also emerging and in governments’ ability to act. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that despite this upswing, the overall scores remain modest on those variables, hovering around 5 on a scale of 0 to 10 for both Europe and Ireland.

In summary, the two rounds illustrate the evolving public opinion on climate change reduction, with increased belief in the impact of human activity both as a cause and a potential solution, while confidence in the feasibility of collective action and government effectiveness in driving change still very low. The Climate Change Advisory Council in Ireland stated a concern in their recent report (Climate Change Advisory Council, 2023) about not meeting the targets[viii] set to reduce emissions and the level of coordination between society and the Government. Public support for climate change policies is on the rise. There is more to do at the institutional level.

References

Climate Change Advisory Council. (2023). Climate Change Advisory Council’s Annual Review 2023 Ireland (Annual Review). Climate Change Advisory Council. https://www.climatecouncil.ie/councilpublications/annualreviewandreport/CCAC-AR-2023-FINAL%20Compressed%20web.pdf

Climate Change in the Irish Mind—Wave 1 2021—Demographic Summary. (2021). EPA – Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/climate-change/EPA-CCIM-2021-W1-Climate-Change-in-the-Irish-Mind-Demographic-Analysis.pdf

Eurobarometer. (2023). Climate change—July 2023—- Eurobarometer survey (2954 / SP538; Climate Change). European Commission. https://europa.eu/eurobarometer/surveys/detail/2954

Friedrich, J., & Damassa, T. (2014). The History of Carbon Dioxide Emissions. https://www.wri.org/insights/history-carbon-dioxide-emissions

Gore, T. (2020). Confronting carbon inequality: Putting climate justice at the heart of the COVID-19 recovery. Oxfam. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621052/mb-confronting-carbon-inequality-210920-en.pdf

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2023) Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_Full_Report.pdf

Jacobs, P., Lenssen, N., Schmidt, G., & Rohde, R. (2021). The Arctic Is Now Warming Four Times As Fast As the Rest of the Globe. 2021, A13E-02.

Pörtner, H.-O., Roberts, D. C., Tignor, M., Poloczanska, E. S., Mintenbeck, K., Alegría, A., Craig, M., Langsdorf, S., Löschke, S., Möller, V., Okem, A., & Rama, B. (2022). PCC, 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-ii/

Timmons, S., Whelan, A., & Kelly, C. (2023). An experimental test of a greenwashing inoculation intervention: Effects on identification, trust and intentions (ESRI Working Paper) [Working Paper]. ESRI. https://esri.ie/publications/an-experimental-test-of-a-greenwashing-inoculation-intervention-effects-on

Vigna, L., & Friedrich, J. (2023). 9 Charts Explain Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Country. https://www.wri.org/insights/charts-explain-per-capita-greenhouse-gas-emissions


[i] ESS Round 10 field work lasted very long due to pandemic. The period for field work varied vastly between countries. It started in 2020 and finished in 2022.

[ii] 40 countries participated at least one round as of Round 10 (2020). Ireland has been in all rounds during the 20 years of ESS. The project is supported by IRC (Irish Research Council).

[iii] For more info about the impact ESS has see https://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/findings/ess-impact.

[iv] 9 countries conducted Round 10 in self-completion mode.

[v] More guidance for weighting when using ESS data see: https://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/methodology/ess-methodology/data-processing-and-archiving/weighting.

[vi] ESS10 was CAPI (computer aided personal interview), EPA research was CATI (computer aided telephone interview).

[vii] The scale used is 11 point, from zero (not at all) to ten (a great deal).

[viii] Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 aims for transition to Net Zero and to achieve a climate neutral economy by no later than 2050.