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Confusion Is the Main Reason Europeans and Americans Underestimate Climate Crisis, Open Society Report Finds

New research in Europe and the United States shows that large portions of the public still do not accept the urgency of the climate crisis, only a minority believe it will impact them and their families severely over the next 15 years, and significant minorities believe scientists are equally divided on the causes of global warming—including two thirds of voters in the Czech Republic (67 percent) and nearly half in the United Kingdom (46 percent). In reality, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans have caused recent global warming.

Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, said, “Many citizens across Europe and the United States still don’t realize that scientific consensus on human responsibility for climate change is overwhelming. Though outright denialism is rare, there is a widespread false belief, promoted by vested interests opposed to emissions reductions, that scientists are split on whether humans are causing climate change—when in fact 97 percent of scientists know that.”

“This soft denialism matters,” Grabbe continued, “because it lulls the public into thinking that climate change won’t affect their lives much over the next decades, and they don’t realize how radically we need to change our economic system and habits to prevent ecological collapse. Our polling shows that the more convinced people are that climate change is the result of human activity, the more accurately they estimate its impact and the more they want action.”

The survey, which was commissioned by d|part and the Open Society European Policy Institute, forms part of a major new study of climate awareness. It charts attitudes on the existence, causes, and impacts of climate change in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It also examines public attitudes to a series of policies that the EU and national governments could harness to reduce the damage inflicted by human-made emissions. 

The report finds that, though a clear majority of European and American respondents are aware that the climate is warming, and that it is likely to have negative impacts for humankind, there is a distorted public understanding of the scientific consensus in both Europe and America. This, the report argues, has created a gap between public awareness and climate science, leaving the public underestimating the urgency of the crisis, and failing to appreciate the scale of the action required. 

All but a small minority accept that human activities have a role in climate change—with no more than 10 percent refusing to believe this in any country surveyed. However, while outright denial is rare, there is widespread confusion about the extent of human responsibility. Large minorities, ranging from 17 percent to 44 percent across the surveyed countries, still believe that climate change is caused equally by humans and natural processes. This matters because those who do accept that climate change is the result of human action are twice as likely to believe it will cause negative consequences in their own lives.

A large majority of citizens in all nine countries polled agree that climate change requires a collective response, whether to mitigate climate change or adapt to its challenges. Majorities in Spain (80 percent), Italy (73 percent), Poland (64 percent), France (60 percent), the United Kingdom (58 percent), and the United States (57 percent) agree with the statement that “we should do everything we can to stop climate change.”

Majorities are willing to act on climate change, but the actions they favor tend to be consumer-focused rather than efforts to create collective social change.  A majority of respondents in every country say they have already cut their plastic consumption (62 percent), their air travel (61 percent), or their car travel (55 percent). A majority also says they either already have or are planning to reduce their meat consumption, switch to a green energy supplier, vote for a party because of their climate change program, or buy more organic and locally produced food.

However, people are much less likely to support civil society engagement directly, with only small minorities having donated to an environmental organization (15 percent across the survey), joined an environmental organization (8 percent across the survey), or joined an environmental protest (9 percent across the survey). Only a quarter (25 percent) of respondents across the survey say they have voted for a political party because of their climate change policies. 

Just 47 percent of those surveyed believe they, as individuals, have a very high responsibility for tackling climate change. Only in the United Kingdom (66 percent), Germany (55 percent), the United States (53 percent), Sweden, (52 percent), and Spain (50 percent) is there a majority who feel a high sense of responsibility themselves. In every country surveyed, people are more likely to think that their national government has a high responsibility for tackling climate change. This ranges from 77 percent of those surveyed in Germany and the United Kingdom, to 69 percent in the United States, 69 percent in Sweden, and 73 percent in Spain. In every EU country, respondents were slightly more likely to see the EU as having a high responsibility for reducing climate change than national governments. 

The report also finds that there is polarization along party political lines on climate change, in Europe as well as the United States. Those on the left tend to be more aware of the existence, causes, and impact of climate change—and more in favor of action—than people on the right. These differences are more important than demographic variation in most countries. For example, in the United States, those who identify as left in their political orientation are nearly three times as likely to expect a negative impact on their own lives (49 percent) compared to those who identify as more on the right (17 percent). Polarization is also marked in Sweden, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The only country where there is balance across the spectrum is the Czech Republic.

Jan Eichhorn, research director of d|part and lead author of the study, said, “Our research shows that the public, of all ages, in Europe and the United States want to see action in response to climate change. Politicians need to show leadership in responding to this desire in an ambitious way that enhances people's understanding of the severity of the crisis and the impact humans have; our research shows there is work to be done here. Relying on individual action is not enough. People believe primary responsibility is with their state and international organizations such as the EU, and are open to supporting more extensive action, but this requires urgent further work from political and civil society actors."

d|part is a non-profit, independent and nonpartisan think tank, based in Berlin, Germany. The focus of its work is to research and support different forms of political participation.

The Open Society European Policy Institute is the EU policy and advocacy branch of the Open Society Foundations network, based in Brussels. It works to influence and inform decision-making on EU laws, policy, funding, and external action to maintain and promote open societies in Europe and beyond.

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