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Optimism and Pessimism: Attitudes to Climate Change

June 10th, 2024

With climate change arguably the biggest threat to the survival of humanity, everyone across the planet needs to combat it. To ensure a sustainable future, this requires us to make conscious decisions and lifestyle changes and to pressure national governments. However, human behaviour is an important factor in how both the individual and wider society contribute to the common good, and a new study has set out to show how we could all do with being more optimistic in how we perceive the efforts of others.

There is a considerable lack of research into how willing people are to cooperate and to contribute to fighting climate change. Cooperative behaviours can include voting in elections, protesting for climate action and donating to charities that actively work on implementing sustainable practices. Humans can be described as ‘conditional cooperators’, which means that someone is more likely to contribute to the general good of society when they believe that other people are doing so too. I’m sure if you’re reading this article, you are probably a supporter of climate action. Despite that, you may be reluctant to educate others around you, for fear of encroaching on their freedom and perhaps because of a lack of faith in their willingness to act. Studies suggest that, across the world, we have misconceptions about other people’s willingness to act. This could make us more pessimistic and therefore less likely to fight climate change ourselves [1].

To assess how willing people are to participate in the fight against climate change, scientists surveyed almost 130,000 people from 125 countries, which account for 96% of global greenhouse emissions. The people surveyed were asked whether they would contribute 1% of their monthly income to fight climate change, or, if not, whether they would give a smaller amount. Then they were asked what percentage of people in their country they thought would also be willing to contribute, before being asked whether they thought the general public and the government should do more to combat climate change. These questions gave the researchers an indication of the public’s general approval of environmentally friendly social norms and an understanding of how much pressure people think needs to be put on their political systems.

The findings of this study were encouraging: on average across the countries, almost 70% of people said they would contribute 1% of their income to projects which helped prevent climate change or reduced its effects. The overwhelming majority of people said that both fellow citizens and governments should try to fight global warming. Interestingly, people from the poorest countries were more willing to contribute than people in the richest. There was a similar pattern between the countries with the highest temperatures compared to colder ones, with warmer places being more supportive of climate action. ‘Developing’ countries often suffer more from climate change compared to ‘developed’ countries, likely due to their lack of infrastructure and their reduced ability to adapt to threats posed by global warming, like heat waves and droughts[2, 3]. 

Finally, the results of the survey also showed that individuals around the globe strongly underestimate their fellow citizens’ commitment to the common good. On average, they underestimated by 26% other people’s willingness to contribute to fighting climate change. Similar results have been seen in other studies which examined opinions related to climate change, finding that people grossly overestimated the number of ‘climate deniers’ in the broader community [4]. It seems people can be quite pessimistic in their beliefs about others’ attitudes to climate change, and this pessimism can be a real obstacle to progress.

How to Find Another Way 

This massive survey of people from across the world truly displays that, as a species, we support the fight against climate change, and that the majority of people can and would contribute financially to environmental causes. However, the survey also showed that we can be overly pessimistic about our peers’ commitment to the cause, and there is only one real way to solve this: to talk about it. Share how much you care for the planet on social media, talk to your family and friends about how we can all be more eco-friendly, and continue to use your right to vote to support policies which prioritise sustainable, long-term solutions to climate change. Don’t be afraid to speak out: chances are, people will listen. 


Translating Science article by Fin Mills.


Study Paper: Andre P, Boneva T, Chopra F, Falk A. Globally representative evidence on the actual and perceived support for climate action. Nature Climate Change. 2024 Feb 9:1-7. 

[1] Geiger N, Swim JK. Climate of silence: Pluralistic ignorance as a barrier to climate change discussion. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2016 Sep 1;47:79-90. 

[2] Chinowsky P, Hayles C, Schweikert A, Strzepek N, Strzepek K, Schlosser CA. Climate change: comparative impact on developing and developed countries. The Engineering Project Organization Journal. 2011 Mar 1;1(1):67-80. 

[3] Reilly J, Hohmann N. Climate change and agriculture: the role of international trade. The American Economic Review. 1993 May 1;83(2):306-12. 

[4] Leviston Z, Walker I, Morwinski S. Your opinion on climate change might not be as common as you think. Nature Climate Change. 2013 Apr;3(4):334-7.

Photos: Daniel Funes Fuentes, Markus Spiske, Gyan Shahane – all at Unsplash

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