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New Research Examines What Sparks Environmental Activism Among Europeans

Socioeconomic factors play the largest role in determining public’s environmental concern

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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In a new study published in Global Environmental Changeresearcher Jonas Peisker of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis Population and Just Societies Program explored the factors that affect the extent to which people care about the environment. The results suggest that more equal wealth distribution is positively associated with environmental concern, a finding that could help inform efforts to drum up support for environmentalism.

In the study, Peisker examined 25 Eurobarometer surveys, which are public opinion surveys conducted on behalf of the European Commission and other institutions of the European Union. The surveys included in Peisker’s study spanned the years 2009 to 2019 and 206 regions across Europe. His analysis explores how socioeconomic, geographical, and meteorological factors influence environmental concern. “While previous research has only considered a few contextual influences at the time,” Peisker said, “this study allows for a comparison of their relative importance, including also factors that differ mostly between regions, such as inequality, income level, or geographical features.”

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Peisker discovered that good economic conditions, characterized by higher income and low inflation, are positively associated with increased environmental concern. According to the news release, this is likely a manifestation of a “finite pool of worry,” in which immediate issues in one’s personal life, such as financial stability, drown out larger issues like climate change. This idea is similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which people can only worry about things that don’t directly affect them once their baseline needs have been sufficiently met.

Other key findings include that those in regions with more equal distributions of wealth and income also prioritize environmentalism higher, and that regions with industries reliant on greenhouse gas had lower environmental concern. Overall, Peisker notes, socioeconomic context has a great effect on environmental concern than any environmental or geographic factors do.

“The results of the study emphasize that social cohesion and a just transition to carbon neutrality are key for the bottom-up support for environmental policy,” Peisker said. “Climate policy and environmental protection are likely to be unpopular if they are increasing income and wealth inequality, inflation, and unemployment. Therefore, a way to support climate action could be to emphasize the co-benefits of environmental policy, for instance, positive employment effects of the transition to renewable energy sources.”