Climate fatigue

  • Extreme weather events have almost become the new normal around the world, emphasizing the urgency of the global climate crisis. Yet, climate literacy has declined to an alarmingly low level. In the second edition of our Climate Literacy Survey, we asked a representative sample of 1,000 people in eight countries (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, the UK and the US) about their knowledge of the risks of climate change, as well as climate policies and climate actions. We find that a staggering 48.2% of respondents could be categorized as having low climate literacy, and that this share has significantly increased by an average of 16pps in Germany, France, Italy and the UK, compared to our 2021 survey of five countries. In the 2023 edition, the share of respondents with low climate literacy ranged from 41.1% in China to as high as 58.0% in India. On the other end of the spectrum, only 7.9% of respondents show high climate literacy, ranging from 3.6% in India to 12.8% in Brazil.
 
  • Low climate literacy goes hand in hand with an increasing nonchalance about the impact of climate change. Only 50% of respondents are still aware of the threat of fatal damages if temperatures rise above 1.5C. Two years ago, this proportion was still 67% in the five countries surveyed. In a mirror image, 35% of all respondents are now convinced that nature and humans can adapt to higher temperatures without major consequences (2021: 20%). This belief is held by a larger share of respondents in India (52%) and China (49%). Moreover, only 31% of respondents realize that a drastic reduction in emissions is necessary to combat climate change.
  • On average, younger generations are less informed about climate issues than older ones. The share of younger respondents with low climate literacy is higher (Gen-Z: 52.2% vs Boomers: 45.9%), while those with high literacy is lower (Gen-Z: 6.1% vs Boomers: 9.3%). Only in one country does it seem to be confirmed that climate commitment and knowledge go hand in hand: In Italy, Gen-Z (8.4%) have the highest level of climate literacy.
  • Climate literacy is a strong predictor for climate action at the individual level. Only a small minority of 6.9% of respondents say they do nothing at all in terms of climate protection. The majority of respondents take at least some action, with 10.8% being very active. Naturally, the higher the climate literacy, the higher the urge to act: 27% of respondents with high climate literacy say they are very active to reduce their carbon footprints, compared to just 6% of respondents with low climate literacy. We calculate that climate literacy (42%) is a better predictor for climate action than climate stress (33%) or feeling personally affected (15%).
  • In contrast to climate literacy, the level of climate anxiety is high. 76.8% of all respondents are concerned (anxious) or even alarmed (very anxious) about climate change and its consequences. Italy (86.7%) and Brazil (86.1%) report the highest shares. In the US, “only” two-thirds of respondents are (very) anxious. On the other hand, 12.6% of US respondents – the highest share in our survey – do not believe that climate change is ongoing. Contrary to the literature, our study shows no significant differences between the generations: Age is not a predictor of climate stress – nor is it statistically significant.
  • There is only a loose correlation between climate anxiety or stress and climate literacy. While the proportion of respondents with low climate literacy decreases almost linearly with the degree of climate anxiety, just under a third of sceptics have a basic understanding of climate change – and still deny it. Similarly, at the opposite end of the spectrum, just under half of the respondents alarmed by climate change have little to no knowledge of it. There is another, often overlooked component that creates diffuse fear: emotionality.
  • The emotional response towards climate change – coupled with an overall low level of climate literacy – is a double-edged sword. Emotionality can be used both for and against climate change. It makes climate policy susceptible to populism, simplifying complex issues and embedding them within the typical “us vs. them” narrative. As seen during the pandemic, key to this strategy is the disavowing of experts as climate change tends to be publicized as a technical issue and framed as an emergency. Although our survey shows a still good level of trust and goodwill towards experts, only 41% of those that had low climate literacy considered that the scientific community should provide advice, against 54% with average climate literacy and 73% with high climate literacy.
  • How should policymakers react? A three-pronged approach seems necessary: 1. Staying the course to provide industry and households with clear signals that the transition will be followed through. 2. Combining the consistent pursuit of targets with equally consistent social safeguards for the green transformation. The current policy of increasing costs but delaying the promised compensation, the so-called climate dividend (“Klimageld”), makes it far too easy for climate populists to sway public opinion. 3. Fighting for better climate literacy, even if – or rather because – emotionality plays a major role in climate issues.
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Arne Holzhausen
Allianz SE
Patricia Pelayo Romero
Allianz SE