Broad global majorities support urgent climate action — especially if the messaging is right

Love for the future, not fear for oneself. A cleaner and more high-tech society, not a more limited one. And the responsibility of businesses and governments over individuals.

Those are the messages that drive more than three-quarters of people on earth to support rapid climate action, according to a survey published on Tuesday by advocacy group Potential Energy with support from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the Global Strategic Communications Council.

The report found that 78 percent of people worldwide agreed with the statement that it was “essential that our government does whatever it takes to limit the effects of climate change” — while just 10 percent disagreed.

The most potent messages for respondents centered on replacing coal with clean energy, setting clean energy targets, limiting carbon emissions and subsidizing clean energy.

As this year’s United Nations climate change conference (COP28) takes place in Dubai, the report offered a positive view of global support for climate action — even as it conveyed a slightly more complicated one about decades of climate messaging.

For one thing, it found that the vast majority of people worldwide are not familiar with key benchmarks related to the issue.

In the U.S., for example, about half of the population had heard of the Paris Climate Agreement — but just 21 percent had heard of the goal it established of limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

While that number sets the limit beyond which the vast majority of climate scientists believe serious danger waits, most North Americans thought that the U.N. had set a safe level more than twice as high — at 3.7 Celsius.

That is a level that U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has compared to “the gates to hell.”

Respondents also tended to blame governments and corporations — not their fellow citizens — for the climate crisis, and to hold them responsible for fixing it.

Only 26 percent of respondents worldwide thought the onus was primarily on individuals — a number that was 20 percent in the United States.

The biggest share of Americans — about 35 percent — believed the government was most responsible, followed closely by about 32 percent that believed it was primarily up to business to fix the crisis.

One of the biggest findings, however, was that support for climate policies could swing by as much as 20 percentage points based on how the same proposition was framed.

People, it found, responded poorly to anything that suggested limitations. This included words like mandates, bans or phaseouts — the last of which has become the center of COP28, as the world decides whether to pursue a complete elimination of fossil fuels or just a phasedown of their use.

Messaging that framed measures in such terms “often led to 9 points lower support (and in extreme cases, up to 20 points lower support) than those that did not,” researchers wrote.

The study revealed one major caveat to the idea that limits were bad, however: People liked the idea of limits on pollution from fossil fuels.

About 76 percent of people agreed with the proposition that the world shared a “global responsibility to limit the amount of carbon pollution emitted” — a limit that respondents connected to the need ”to protect the communities that are most at risk.”

As a case study, researchers considered the idea of banning gas stoves — a contentious issue in state legislatures across the country.

While a majority of respondents backed such a ban however it was presented by the researchers, many more people were supportive when the idea was framed in general and positive terms.

Americans, for example, were 50 points more likely to accept the idea that technology could help them stay within environmental limits while maintaining the same standard of living than they were to accept a lower standard.

Around the world, three-quarters of respondents agreed that “as better technologies come onto the market, we should require their use in all new buildings and construction.”

A slimmer majority — 54 percent — agreed with the idea of banning gas stoves, and 70 percent supported mandating their replacement with electric stoves — although all three statements express roughly the same policy.

Positivity also colors the main motivation respondents gave for supporting urgent climate action: “to protect the planet for future generations.”

That motivation was 12 times more powerful than the desire to grow the economy.

It was also about twice as powerful as the desire to protect their health or themselves from extreme weather.

“The data says that fear versus hope is the wrong debate. The big motivator is protecting what we love,” the report’s authors wrote.

“It is the combination of people’s love for their children and their world, and their sense of impending loss, that drives their desire for a different and better future for the world. This is the bigger narrative that can lift support across countries and segments.”

There is one important outlier in these findings: the United States. The U.S. has the strongest political polarization of all countries surveyed, with left-leaning people 46 percent more likely to support climate action than those who are more conservative — a level of polarization four times that of the average country.

Other countries with big fossil fuel sectors share that dynamic, though to a lesser extent: In Norway, Canada and Germany there is 30 percent more support for climate action on the left, and in the U.K., Chile and Brazil there is 10 to 20 percent more support on the left.

In a few countries — like Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Turkey — it is the right wing that is more supportive of climate action, meanwhile.

In the case of the U.S., researchers also noted that support for climate action does not line up with the country’s contribution to the crisis. The U.S. has contributed 25 percent of historical carbon emissions and a similar amount of the current global GDP, which tends to track emissions.

But Americans were the least likely of any nation’s respondents to support the 18 climate policies the pollsters put before them.

Even here, however, a comfortable national majority of 59 percent supported even the least popular options for climate action.

And even on the U.S. right — where support for a fossil-fuel phaseout hovered around 20 percent — a majority of respondents backed subsidizing clean energy.

That’s something that more than two-thirds of U.S. independents back — along with replacing coal with clean energy and limits on carbon pollution.

Updated Dec. 6 at 9:31 a.m.

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