Why investigate public concern about the issue of climate change

Topics: Greenhouse Gas

Global warming is undeniably damaging all kinds of ecosystems, from the maritime to the mountainous ones , inevitably putting at risk the existence of several animal species. It also is affecting particular job sectors and consequently the general economy of most countries, although to different extents depending on their geographical position, weather conditions and richness level, to begin with.

Extensive evidence imputes to human behavior the responsibility for the environmental crisis. It has been shown that the phenomenon of global warming will increasingly prevent societies and economies of the world to sustainably develop in the future, mainly due to the greenhouse effect, which is nothing but the byproduct of an irreversible human lifestyle which implies compulsive production of goods and services on a huge scale.

So far, this has meant a significant emission of the so-called greenhouse gases (GHGs) – among them, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide .

Such a life-threatening situation calls for urgent and consistent action of mitigation by governments and supranational institutions, to reduce GHGs emissions and drastically drop the current unsustainable lifestyle most of the world population is now used to.

However, such a substantial action has not been following. This inaction is precisely what lays at the heart of the question this analysis stems from. Why are consistent environmental policies not following? What kind of input is public opinion submitting to the political system it is part of? How concerned is it with the issue of climate change and what psychological factor may affect this concern? The interest in public opinion regarding this issue is key for a twofold reason.

Get quality help now
Bella Hamilton

Proficient in: Greenhouse Gas

5 (234)

“ Very organized ,I enjoyed and Loved every bit of our professional interaction ”

+84 relevant experts are online
Hire writer

On the one hand, zooming out from the issue of climate change as taken here into account, it has been shown that, in general, public opinion may play a role in shaping the government political agenda and final policy choices. In particular, Easton’s (1957) model of a political system is precisely based on the idea that ‘inputs’ coming from citizens then arrive in the hands of representatives, who in turn transform them into ‘outputs’, finally supposed to feed-back citizens, generating a loop system that is, in fact, able to self-sufficiently function. Furthermore, and this is particularly relevant to the purpose of this analysis, such a system is, according to the author of the model, not set into an aseptic context but rather embedded into what is defined as the ‘environment’. This environment is rather very likely to influence the inputs public opinion sends to the representatives and, as a consequence, the outputs they send back to the represented (Easton, 1957).

To apply this general theory to the purpose of this analysis, research, suggests that a link between public perception of a certain issue and consequent government choice to accordingly adjust and implement policies might indeed work for the climate issue as well . It follows then that investigating public opinion on climate change might indeed be relevant to have a better understanding of the conditions which may or may not make environmental policies aimed at mitigating global warming be proposed, approved, and eventually implemented across governments.

On the other hand, once policies issued from governments are implemented, they need to be backed by individual voluntary actions, given that these policies are likely to be aimed at having citizens adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Any attempt made by governments to educate citizens to a more sustainable lifestyle would not work without the support of citizens themselves. It is eventually up to the individual to decide whether gradually turn into a low-carbon consumer or employee, choosing to buy some products rather than others or deciding to work for a certain employer rather than another.

Whereby the importance of investigating the attitudes of individuals toward climate change, to see whether they actually would be ready to back any potential environmental policy that a system of multilevel governance might implement, and therefore set the very first step toward an effective policy-making for mitigation, which is precisely the type of policy massively and globally needed and yet neither massively nor globally implemented. Hence, a second key reason why public opinion is crucial is that environmental policies or initiatives are unlikely to succeed if they cannot count on substantial support by public opinion in their everyday activities and personal conduct.

All these things considered, this thesis aims at looking at the case of two Mediterranean southern European countries, Spain and Italy, whose public opinion is usually labeled as not environmentally concern, despite the gravity and urgency of the issue of global warming. The idea behind this thesis is to investigate the extent of environmental concern in Spain and Italy, to see what determines higher extents of care about the issue, to see how this varied over time, and identify those elements that sustainability strategies elaborated in these two countries shall account for. This is mostly done by looking at the climate crisis from a psychological perspective, assuming that, in the words of the behavioral scientist Daniel Kahneman “to mobilize people, this has to become an emotional issue”.

On this ground, it is useful to go through the extensive literature of behavioral studies dedicated to human decision making and opinion formation, to identify and review those analysis that may help to make sense of what could contribute in shaping an attitude toward social and political issues in general and environmental issues in particular. To this purpose, the next section aims first at illustrating how, according to a conspicuous number of researches, mostly based on social experiments, conducted in the past few decades, individuals tend to form opinions and eventually decide where to stand on an issue when a choice has to be made.

Building on that theory, some expectations will be outlined, concerning the effect of being exposed to certain environment-related stimuli over time, and also accounting for the current events and the mobilization started around 2018 with the FridayForFuture movement.

Thus, the thesis is structured as follows: a first chapter will review the relevant literature on the topic, will provide an explanation for the choice of investigating environmental concern employing opinion surveys rather than by opting for an analysis of Green voting behavior, and will eventually outline the research question, the general expectation and the particular hypotheses this research aims at answering and testing. Then, the second chapter will give more detailed information on the data used, the choice of variables, and their operationalization and measurement. In the third chapter results of the analysis will be displayed utilizing duly commented tables and figures, and regression analysis will be reported and commented as well; a discussion of the findings will close the chapter by connecting the results to the expectations of this research and evidencing its limits. Finally, a conclusion will sum up the main elements of this research and suggest potential avenues for further research.

It is common for citizens to tend to generally lack substantial knowledge of political issues (Delli Carpini, & Keeter, 1991). In particular, research shows that the odds of people ignoring pieces of political information get higher if they face a complex, unfamiliar political issue that would require a significant mental effort in terms of collecting new information about it, process it, and eventually form an opinion on it.

However, a lack of political knowledge does not act as a deterrent for people to express a preference – be it by casting a vote or just giving an opinion on a given issue. Indeed, the use of heuristics to shape one’s opinion is well documented in the literature (Brady & Sniderman, 1985; McDermott, 2005; Sniderman, 2000; Sniderman, Brody, & Tetlock, 1991), illustrating how citizens, instead of undertaking a thorough assessment of pros and cons for issues regarding policy contents, rather prefer to rely on external cues nudging them toward a certain direction and allowing them to eventually overcome their information shortfalls and get to a satisfying final decision (Baldassarri, 2005; Baldassarri & Schadee, 2006; Campbell & Cowley, 2014; Hobolt, 2007; Lau & Redlawsk, 2001; Torcal, Martini, & Orriols, 2018; Tucker, De Sio, Paparo, & Brader, 2014). Following an instinct rather than meticulously analyzing every positive and negative side of two or more different options, does not sound too rational a behavior. Indeed, countless are the mechanisms that lay behind a human decision and most of them rely on theories that do not have much to do with the rational theory of choice.

The linchpin of the rational theory of choice is the expectation principle – in quantitative terms, what has been defined as the expected utility model. According to this model, all individuals want, as decision-makers, is to maximize. They do that by calculating the expected utility, which is the total sum of utilities of all the factors considered, each weighted by its probability. However, individuals happen to assign to different outcomes different weights compared to those they would have in expected utility terms. For instance, people do not weight the same the odds of gaining a certain quantity of money as the do the odds of losing the same quantity. Taking into account this shortfall, prospect theory proposes that potential outcomes, rather than being multiplied by their odds, are “multiplied by the decision weight, that is a monotonic but nonlinear function of its probability”.

Eventually, research in social sciences has shown that we are probably not as rational as human beings as we would like to believe. In particular, behavioral scientists have shown people are not willing to undergo cognitively demanding decision-making processes, unless something particularly worthy and valuable is at stake. According, in particular, to the literature on social psychology, human brains would mostly opt for cost-effective ways of making decisions, relying on heuristics (i.e., cognitive shortcuts that bias our judgment), since these allow them to exit the impasse situation of indecision they very often face and make a choice which does not require too much of an effort and yet guarantees them a feeling of overall satisfaction.

Far from implying that individuals are incapable of undergoing also rational ways of processing information to make sound and weighted decisions, heuristics are mentioned to bring to light one of the tools that we as decision-makers are likely to use, without even realizing we are using them, to eventually give answers to questions that are posed to us. The element of interest for us here is that sometimes we use heuristics even to take highly relevant decisions, both personally and socially – those decisions which, given their importance, we would expect to be the result of a throughout rational analysis of costs and benefits. Yet, this is often not the case. Instead, in political decisions, as well as in economic decisions among many others, our choices are prone to distortion.

Through experiments, Tversky and Kahneman (1974) found out a large number of individuals’ choices are biased, that is to say, they are the final result of intuitive processes which at times might lead to a better choice, at times to a worse one, in terms of maximization of utility. What is remarkable is that this kind of decision-making process leads us to the most satisfactory choice for us at that moment, even if in terms of utility it is not the best one (Baldassarri, 2005).

Therefore, our rationality does not consist in optimizing the result or in choosing something based on consistency and coherence, but rather in having the ability to “Take the Best; ignore the Rest” – namely, identifying the useful cues and ignoring the superfluous ones. Thus, we are not just randomly biased by the cues we select. We rather systematically unconsciously follow some patterns that make things easier for us in terms of mental effort, depending on what we can recall, what we remember, what we saw, and what we think we saw.

Among the useful cues at work when it comes to the environmental issue and the urgency needed to take action and fight against global warming, some cognitive biases are particularly useful to explain why such an unprecedented global risk is not followed by an equally unprecedented global action. Climate change is hands-off the most urgent issue human beings all over the world are facing right now – and probably the most urgent they have ever faced in the history of humankind – given that it is endangering the feasibility of potentially any other social and political fight we can imagine.

Yet, people tend not to prioritize global warming over other issues they tend to be more worried about. And they do so because some heuristics are biasing their judgment in such a way that their brains are somehow “wired to ignore climate change” (Marshall, 2015: 226). The list of cognitive mechanism that may potentially bias our judgment in favor of a lax attitude toward the issue of global warming is unluckily a long one, but some of these cognitive shortcuts actually revolve around the same concept and can somehow be grouped in creating a network of biases quite connected one to the other rather than isolated mechanisms working separately in human minds.

First, people are attached to the status quo and to everything they can label as ‘normal’ in the present moment. At the end of the XX century, Fukuyama (1989) first used the expression “The end of history” to identify liberal democracy as the ultimate stage of an evolution of forms of government, after which no new one would ever emerge. Roughly a quarter of a century later, three social psychologists published a study they conducted to investigate how human beings tend to perceive change over time.

The researchers recruited almost 20,000 people ranging in age from 18 to 68, and interviewed them about things like their current tastes, values, attitudes; how those things had varied compared to ten years before, and how they thought they could vary in ten years from that moment. The psychologists found out people of all ages considered they had gone through a thorough change over the past ten years while believing they would not go through a significant change in the future. Indeed, when asked to forecast future personal change, people of all age groups systematically tended to estimate a degree of change that was lower than the assessed by the one that ten-year older people had admitted having experienced.

Cite this page

Why investigate public concern about the issue of climate change. (2022, May 26). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/why-investigate-public-concern-about-the-issue-of-climate-change/

Let’s chat?  We're online 24/7