At this moment, countries worldwide face three main crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, a looming economic crisis, and a liberal democracy crisis, often exemplified by the rise of populism. What role can we expect the climate change crisis to play in the publics’ mind in times like these? This is an important question to ask for climate policy, because public opinion about climate change is strongly related to both support for climate policy and personal climate mitigation behaviors.
In a recent publication in Climate Policy, we aim to better understand public concern about climate change. We analyze survey data from more than 155,000 respondents in 28 European countries over the period 2008-2017. In particular, we study the role of economic factors and the rise of climate skeptic right-wing populist parties. We use an innovative modeling approach to explain what drives differences in climate change concern both between countries and over time. What are the implications of our results in the current COVID-19 context?
Our findings illustrate that in times of economic distress public concern about climate change tends to decrease. Especially a rise in unemployment can lead to strong declines in concern in the short-term. This finding is explained by the finite pool of worry hypothesis, which posits that people do not have the emotional capacity to worry about too many things at the same time. This does not provide much optimism for the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, because its economic (and health) consequences could shift worry away from climate change. One way to overcome this perceived economy/climate trade-off would be to communicate and deploy climate policies as a way to enhance economic growth and generate employment.
The rise of populist parties, especially right-wing populist parties, entails another potential backlash for public engagement with climate change given that anti-climate positions and rhetoric have become an increasingly important engine for these parties. Earlier studies find that, at the individual level, populist attitudes are often associated with higher levels of climate skepticism (Huber, 2020). In contrast, our paper indicates that, at the country level, there is no strong association between the popularity of right-wing populism and climate change concern. All in all, the impact of COVID-19 on the popularity of populist parties is yet to be seen. On the one hand, the COVID-19 crisis has been a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and public resentment, which has often been picked up by populist parties. On the other hand, many populist leaders have been criticized for inadequately dealing with the pandemic, and as a result have lost support in some countries.
The implications of COVID-19 for public engagement with climate change are not entirely negative. COVID-19 uncovered to a wider public our strong dependence on a healthy state of nature, where a pandemic originating from the natural system can bring our societies to a standstill. In addition, as climate change itself is predicted to increase the prevalence of infectious diseases, promoting climate policy as a way to prevent future pandemics could spark greater public support for its implementation (Botzen et al., 2021). We hope that our paper can aid to a fruitful discussion on how to maintain and increase public engagement with climate change in these difficult times.
Botzen, W., Duijndam, S., & van Beukering, P. (2021). Lessons for climate policy from behavioral biases towards COVID-19 and climate change risks. World Development, 137, 105214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105214
Huber, R. A. (2020). The role of populist attitudes in explaining climate change skepticism and support for environmental protection. Environmental Politics, 29(6), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2019.1708186
Read the full paper here.
Sem Duijndam is a PhD researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam – Institute for Environmental Studies. His main research interests lie in climate migration, ecosystem services, and attitudes towards environmental change.