Few People Care Enough About the Climate Crisis to Make Serious Changes, Poll Shows

They also think recycling is the most important thing they can do to fight it.

Three kids standing next to each other wearing superhero costumes with full trash bags in front of them.
No, this is not the best thing you can do to fight climate change.

StockPlanets / Getty Images

If it is the week after Earth Day, then it's time for GreenBiz founder Joel Makower's roundup of all those Earth Day polls looking at what people think about climate, the environment, and the state of the planet. And like all of us at Treehugger, he despairs about how little impact we are having, writing in an email newsletter that "despite years of education and activism, not to mention advertising and plain old PR, we don’t seem much closer to that Utopian vision of the masses banding together to support a greener, cleaner planet, never mind trying to solve the looming climate crisis."

A graph of a Pew poll showing the public's top concern.

Pew Research Center

Makower points to a recent Pew Research Center report, which looked at what Americans are most concerned about and it ain't climate change. As political advisor James Carville said decades ago, "It's the economy, stupid." It's always the economy, even when unemployment is down. Even when unemployment is lower than it has been in years, the climate still comes in way below "improving the job situation." But OK, all of these things are on peoples' minds, and most of them need fixing.

A chart of Ipsos findings about public perception about impact of different actions like recycling and living car-free


Much more depressing is an international report from United Kingdom-based pollster Ipsos, which finds people are clueless about what to do and inflate what they might be doing. The latter is why recycling always comes out on top, even though it ranks 60th in impact on climate. The question is, "What do you think would have the most impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions?", not what they are actually doing. But the recycling and packaging industry has just brainwashed everyone—we have seen this time and time again. As I noted when I covered an earlier survey, it "makes me just want to give up and end it all," that the Convenience Industrial Complex has been so successful at this.

Only 15% considered living car-free, which is first in impact, and only 7% would consider going vegan. Fortunately this year Ipsos dropped the choice of "having one fewer child," which caused outrage and controversy in its 2021 survey.

At the time, we reached out to Ipsos research executive Sophie Thompson, asking why recycling always scores so high. She told Treehugger, "There have been many vivid, emotive stories about plastic pollution in the media—such as the BBC’s infamous Blue Planet II episode on plastics pollution—and ‘emotional innumeracy’ can lead us to overestimate or misplace the impacts of issues that affect us in this way."

She also noted recycling is relatively easy and painless, as it doesn't require a big lifestyle change. "It is important to note that all of the actions listed in the research can make a difference, but that public awareness of which actions will make the most difference is very low," said Thompson. "Therefore, with limited attention and time to give to these issues, the public may prioritize actions that have little impact over those that may be much more impactful. Many may be quite happily separating their cans and jars for recycling and then feeling good about planning a long-haul holiday to the Maldives, thinking the former makes up for the latter, when in fact the long-haul flights have a far greater impact."

A graph showing what the public believes is the most impactful in terms of behavior change.


This year's survey asked people what they might do this year to try to "make a contribution to climate change" and reducing packaging came up on top. The willingness to make serious changes is just not there. Dr. Pippa Bailey, the head of U.K. climate change and sustainability practice at Ipsos, reiterates the problem in a press release:

“It is evident that there is still a sizeable gap between what people believe to be true and what is reality in terms of the actions that we as citizens can make to reduce our own carbon footprint. So there is an ongoing role for education and putting more focus on those issues which are going to have a significant positive impact. Some of the tougher life choices, such as people moving away from personal transportation to the use of public transport, walking or cycling is going to be more challenging, particularly in developed economies. However, there is clear awareness of the need by global citizens to transition to renewables and so there is likely to be limited resistance to changes in this area.”

As Ipsos notes, people are still less likely to change behaviors that would have the most impact and they still rate recycling at the top. Makower is as depressed about this as I am: "After all these decades and countless billions of dollars spent on marketing and communications, the public still doesn’t know how to embrace climate solutions."

Makower suggests there is "an urgent need for companies to step up their educational activities, whether to employees, customers or the world." But I am not sure the companies that have so much responsibility for the problem are going to do much to solve it.

As climate scientist Peter Kalmus notes, we know what is important and what is meaningless. We have to get people out of cars and off natural gas. Dr. Bailey says there is "clear awareness of the need by global citizens to transition to renewables and so there is likely to be limited resistance to changes in this area," but I don't see it. And all of her Ipsos numbers suggest we continue to fail in convincing anyone of this.

View Article Sources
  1. "Earth Day 2022: Public Opinion on Climate Change." Ipsos Global Advisor, April 2022.

  2. Ivanova, Diana et al. "Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigations of consumption options." Environmental Research Letters, 20 Aug. 2020. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ab8589

  3. "Earth Day 2022: Global attitudes to climate change." Ipsos, 22 Apr. 2022.