Many Care About Climate Change, But Most Don't Want to Do Much About It

A report by Kantar Public shows that we think cutting carbon is hard, so we would rather recycle.

woman walks in park with "no more plastic" reusable tote and water bottle

Anna Blazhuk / Getty Images

For years on Treehugger, we have shown study after study where people say that recycling as much as possible is the best thing an individual can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I noted in one earlier post that it made me want to give it all up and hop on a plane to somewhere without internet, or on the other hand, credit the geniuses behind recycling:

"Really, one can only marvel at this, at how successful industry has been at making the world safe for single-use products. And how badly we have failed in promoting green space, green building, and of course, the urgency of the climate crisis."

But a new report and survey from public policy consultancy Kantar Public is causing me to reconsider why people put such a high value on recycling. The report was based on a survey of 9,000 respondents in 9 countries.

A bar graph about the Kantar Public study showing what environmental measures people think is "very important."

Kantar Public

The survey shows the same old thing: Reducing waste and increasing recycling tops the list of very important things to do. Then there are a number of things that individuals have little control over, and a big drop when it gets personal again with "increasing consumption of local products" and another significant step at "favoring the use of public transit over cars."

Emmanuel Rivière, director of international polling and political advisory, parses the data and notes that "respondents clearly prioritize the reduction of waste and increases in recycling" and "this behavior relies on citizens’ commitment, no doubt about that." But he points out people are already doing this, so it doesn't require much of a change.

Rivière also notes:

"The most favored actions that follow - stopping deforestation, protecting species, energy efficiency in buildings, banning the use of polluting substances in agriculture - are all solutions that do not require effort on the part of individuals. In direct contrast, the ‘less popular’ solutions are those that imply a direct impact on citizens’ lifestyle: using public transport vs cars, reducing air travel, raising the price of products that fail to respect environmental criteria, and reducing meat consumption."

In other words, they really don't want to give anything up. If someone else will stop deforestation and protect endangered species, that's great, but don't ask me to reduce my meat consumption—even though that would help stop deforestation and protect endangered species.

Looking back at the previous posts, I see that Sophie Thompson, a research executive at Ipsos who worked on an earlier survey, told us that people have an "emotional innumeracy" that can lead us to overestimate or misplace the impacts of issues. Or a sort of wishful innumeracy:

"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."

The funny thing that comes out of the Kantar survey is that recycling, which was invented to protect the producers of single-use packaging from producer responsibility, has been so effective that even though we now know it is functionally almost useless, it still has this halo effect that is now protecting individuals from taking personal responsibility for doing anything serious or difficult because hey, I am doing what I can.

Indeed, the Kantar study finds people are not all that interested in individual action, but would like the government to do something if it is not too onerous or expensive, and really would prefer a sort of Bill Gatesian solution based on "innovation and technological discoveries" rather than "individual and collective efforts to change."

Rivière concludes by noting the ambivalence people have about making any kind of personal change that might be inconvenient. He states: "Is it up to me to make more of an effort if governments and large corporations are lagging behind? And with so many solutions on the table, can I avoid making those changes that would be more painful for me?"

Then, of course, there are the deniers, obfuscators, delayers, and politicians who claim we don't actually know what to do: "The perceived lack of clarity about the best solutions (72% of respondents think there is no agreement among experts on this point), could lead to a ‘wait and see’ approach."

Rivière calls for governments to take the lead, even if it means implementing unpopular measures. Would this ever happen? Writing in The Globe and Mail recently, Eric Reguly complained that governments are back-end loading all their COP26 targets to come well after 2030 when "the majority of politicians who made the pledges will be out of office or six feet under."

"Most of these targets also assume that steady technological advances and outright breakthroughs – the Bill Gates tech-will-save-us philosophy – will make the targets easier to achieve. Wishful thinking, in other words. No government is asking its citizens to go on a carbon diet. You don’t win elections by insisting on smaller houses, smaller (or no) cars, no holidays that require air travel and buying second-hand clothes and mobile phones."

So we have governments avoiding taking any real responsibility, we have individuals doing everything they can to avoid taking personal responsibility, and we are running out of time. It is all a panoply of wishful innumeracy and wishful thinking.

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