The coronavirus pandemic has remarkable similarities to the issue of climate change. Both issues purport to be ‘existential threats’ to the world. Over the course of 2020, there has been fierce debate on the economic costs of the lockdowns, mirroring similar debates surrounding climate change and the economic costs of policies intended to reduce the threat of climate change. Moreover, the lockdowns experienced in 2020 provided an example of what the world would look like with less traffic and pollution. 

In the latest polls conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies in late June, 65% to 73% of respondents across four major European countries say they agreed that climate change was a direct threat facing their nation. The countries with the lowest percentage of respondents who agreed were France and Germany with 65% of respondents in both countries agreeing with the statement. While this level is not exactly the same as the 85% or more who were eager for a lockdown to counteract the coronavirus crisis in March, it still represents a substantial majority.

The majority (56% to 67%) of respondents across the four countries also said they would prioritise the environment, even if it was detrimental to the economy. Respondents in France and Germany were the least likely to agree that they would sacrifice economic growth, with 56% and 57% of respondents agreeing with the statement respectively. In all four countries, somewhat fewer respondents agreed they would prioritise the environment over the economy than respondents who agreed that climate change was a threat. This gap may suggest resistance for policies that cause too much financial strain.

Despite agreement on this question, protecting the environment does not seem to translate to the priorities of the public. Before coronavirus’ advent in Europe, Ursula von der Leyen announced environmental sustainability, equality and digitalisation as next on the agenda for the EU Council. Now, however, when respondents were asked what the most important issues for the EU to focus on were, climate change came behind financial concerns for respondents in France, Italy, and Germany.[1]

Respondents in Italy ranked supporting the overall EU economy (43%), healthcare (43%), preserving the stability of the euro (28%) and economic relief for the newly unemployed (33%) all above environmental regulations (24%). For respondents in France, the overall EU economy (37%), healthcare (33%), and preserving the stability of the euro (26%) came above environmental regulations (23%). Respondents in Germany were the most supportive of environmental regulations (27%) but still ranked overall economy (41%), preserving the stability of euro (33%) and healthcare (30%) as more important.

Though the majority states concern for the environment, individual actions often fall short. taken to combat climate change, stated concern for the environment did not always match reported behaviour.

Out of the 70% of respondents in Italy who reported to adapting their behaviour to combat climate change, 85% said they recycled, 64% took a reusable bag when shopping, 29% travelled less, 29% favoured other forms of transport over flying, 33% bought local foods and 11% bought sustainable clothes.

Respondents in France reported to adapting their personal behaviour to combat climate change in equal numbers to respondents who viewed climate change as a direct threat (65%). Out of the respondents who adapt their behaviour there was a wide range of actions, including recycling (83%), taking a reusable bag when shopping (44%), travelling less often (37%), choosing other forms of transport over flying (33%), buying local foods (26%) and buying sustainable clothes (10%).

65% of respondents in Germany reported to adapt their personal behaviour to combat climate change. 82% reported taking a reusable bag when shopping, 79% recycling, 39% favouring other forms of transport over flying, 39% buying local foods, 31% travelling less often and 14% buying sustainable clothes.

Altogether, despite widespread public agreement on the issue, it is far from clear whether the political similarities between the coronavirus pandemic and climate change have brought a transference of concerted action in the latter area. In fact, the widespread economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic could make combatting climate change less of a priority for members of the public than it was before. While some environmental activists have taken the opportunities provided by the coronavirus pandemic to further their cause (tying bailout packages to better environmental practices by businesses, or by seeking to keep streets car-free, for instance), a new resurgence of climate action is not yet apparent.

[1] Unfortunately, this question was not asked in Spain.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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