While policymakers around the world appear to be taking the imperative of climate action seriously and citizens tend to agree that climate change is an important problem, often consensus on which policies to support is lacking. In this paper, the authors seek to understand what drives support for or opposition to important climate policies across the world. Their goal is to offer new cross-country evidence on people’s perceptions of, understanding of, and attitudes toward climate change and climate policies.

From the results of a new survey of more than 40,000 respondents in 20 countries, together accounting for 72% of global CO2 emissions, the authors show that support for climate policies hinges on perceptions in three key areas: their effectiveness (do respondents believe the policy will reduce emissions?), their impacts on inequality (do they believe they will negatively affect low-income households?), and their expected impacts on the respondent’s own household. They find that providing information specifically addressing these key concerns can substantially increase support for climate policies in many countries.

Key points for decision-makers

  • The authors surveyed 40,000 respondents in 20 countries spanning different income levels and social and economic contexts, including 18 of the 21 largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
  • An overwhelming majority of respondents understood that climate change is real and human-caused. However, respondents disagreed about which measures should be taken to fight it.
  • Three fundamental beliefs are major predictors of whether people support a given climate policy: i) its perceived ability to reduce emissions (effectiveness), ii) its perceived distributional impacts on lower-income households (inequality concerns), and iii) its perceived impact on people’s household (self-interest).
  • Stronger concerns or better knowledge about climate change were not strong predictors of support for climate action.
  • In many countries, there was strong majority support for policies perceived to be effective, progressive, or both: namely green infrastructure programmes, subsidies for low-carbon technologies, carbon taxes with strongly progressive use of revenues (such as cash transfers to the poorest or most impacted households), and policies centred on regulations such as bans on polluting vehicles from city centres and mandatory insulation of buildings.
  • Explaining how policies work and who can benefit from them was found to be important to increasing policy support, whereas simply informing people about the impacts of climate change was not effective.
  • The authors also identify several socioeconomic and lifestyle factors that are significantly correlated with both policy views and overall reasoning and beliefs about climate policies. More educated and left-leaning respondents, and those with good access to public transport, low car usage and low gas expenses, were generally more supportive of climate policies. Opposition to climate policies was strongly correlated with lower availability of public transport, greater reliance on cars, and, to a lesser extent, higher gas expenses.
  • However, it is difficult to predict beliefs or policy views based on socioeconomic and lifestyle characteristics alone.
  • The respondent samples from high-income countries are nationally representative along gender, age, income, region, and area of residence (urban vs. rural). The samples from middle-income countries are online-representative. Comparisons across the two groups should be made with caution.
  • Policy lessons that emerge are firstly, that the specific policies proposed need to be (distributionally) progressive and citizens need to be made aware of their distributional (progressive) impacts; secondly, that explanations and information can be very effective in improving support for climate policies if they address three key concerns: effectiveness, inequality, and self-interest; and thirdly, that people have key concerns about their own potential losses from implementing climate action. This highlights the importance of making environmentally-friendly alternatives such as public transport more widely available before considering raising environmental taxes.
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