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What motivates people to protect the environment?

Why do some people care about climate change while others may not?  A new study analyzes the factors that drive environmental concern to understand how we can bolster support for combating climate change.

The effects of climate change are already visible and impacting our daily lives. Yet among the European population, climate change and the environment are not a top priority. Policy decision making is key to addressing these issues, but this requires strong, public support. To encourage climate action, understanding determinants of environmental concern is key. 

Jonas Peisker, a researcher in the IIASA Population and Just Societies Program, has investigated how environmental preferences in 206 European regions are shaped by socioeconomic, geographical, and meteorological circumstances. The goal was to collect data on various socioeconomic and environmental perspectives. 

“While previous research has only considered a few contextual influences at a time, this study allows for a comparison of their relative importance, including also factors that differ mostly between regions, such as inequality, income level, or geographical features.” said Peisker.

The study analyzed surveys conducted between 2009 and 2019 combined with measures of the regional economy, population, geography, environmental quality, and meteorological events.

Favorable economic conditions, such as a relatively high income level and low inflation, was a key factor driving environmental concern. This is likely related to the idea of a “finite pool of worry” where more immediate issues like economic security override less immediate issues like climate change. 

Interestingly, rising energy prices lowered environmental concerns up to a certain point at which environmental concerns started to rise as well, according to the study. 

Regions with greenhouse gas-intensive industries had lower environmental concern. This is likely due to the potential effects on economic competitiveness in the transition from fossil to clean technology. Environmental factors, such as having a low-elevation coastline, also influenced environmental concern. Overall, socioeconomic context proved to be more important. 

These results demonstrate how a more equal distribution of income and wealth can positively  impact on the prioritization of environmental issues. Social cohesion and a just transition to carbon neutrality are key to gaining public support for environmental policy.  

“Climate policy and environmental protection are likely to be unpopular if they are increasing income and wealth inequality, inflation, and unemployment. Therefore, a way to support climate action could be to emphasize the co-benefits of environmental policy, for instance, positive employment effects of the transition to renewable energy sources,” said Peisker.

The research is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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