Climate change: Feeling the heat but keeping it cool

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People feel differently about climate change depending on where they live. Taking data from 194 European regions, this column presents a staggering paradox: people living in regions most affected by rising temperatures are less concerned about climate change and show surprising optimism about its reversibility. In contrast, inhabitants of colder regions exhibit more pessimism. Examining migration patterns and regional priorities provides potential explanations for this surprising fact. The most affected regions in the study are also those facing acute economic and financial challenges, which might explain why climate change is not prioritised. The most pessimistic and concerned individuals may have also already migrated, leaving behind an optimistic population in the regions most at risk.

Climate change is a well-established scientific phenomenon. Researchers from a broad range of disciplines share the view that it is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. But there is still no consensus among the population as to the level of threat it poses. In fact, one in ten Europeans deny its existence.

The aim of our recent study is to use an objective (but perceivable) indicator of climate change – the rise in temperatures. We then assess whether and how it is subjectively perceived by different populations. More specifically, we examine the increase in temperatures during summer months (May-September) and during winter months (November-March) over the last four decades, to work out who is being affected in what way.

This reveals some curious findings. First, considering the relative increase (i.e., compared with the original value), there is no clear-cut difference between northern and southern Europe. Second, the most affected regions in terms of summer temperatures rises are not the same as the most affected places during winter (see Figure 1). Spain, Poland, Romania and northern countries are all facing hotter summers, while Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany grapple with milder winters.

Figure 1: Relative change in summer (left) and winter (right) temperatures, 1979-2022.

Source: Authors’ calculations

Note: Summer and winter temperatures are respectively measured by cooling and heating degree days, which represent the intensity of the need for cooling and the need for heating.

By analysing the effect of temperature change on climate change perception, we reveal an intriguing finding: people living in the most affected European regions appear more aware of climate change but are less concerned and more optimistic about its reversibility, compared with inhabitants in less affected regions. These results are counter-intuitive, as one might expect the most affected population to be more alarmed and proactive in addressing the issue. It seems that being on the frontline of climate change can make people relatively more sanguine about the topic. This is startling.

Taking a closer look at the data, regions with larger summer temperature increases (by one standard deviation) than the average European region have -2.9 percentage points fewer inhabitants denying the existence of climate change, with 7.3 percentage points more people acknowledging it is affecting their daily life, but -3.5 percentage points fewer considering climate change to be the most important issue their country should address. So, those facing hotter summers believe climate change exists, accept that it affects them, but are less likely to think it is the biggest policy issue facing their communities.

In contrast, inhabitants of colder regions (i.e., places that are heating up less) are significantly more pessimistic about climate change reversibility. But, at the same time, this group is more likely to deny its existence, and consider climate change to have less of an effect on their daily lives. For a region that is colder at origin (by 1 standard deviation) than the average, and experienced a higher winter temperature rise between 1979-2019 (again, by 1 standard deviation), there is a 3.1 percentage point increase in the proportion of people feeling pessimistic about climate change (versus a -2.7 point decrease in those feeling optimistic), a 1.4 percentage increase in climate change denial, and a -3.1 point decrease in those stating that it is affecting their daily life, compared with the European average. So, those living in originally colder places are more sceptical and more pessimistic.


Explanations from existing research

Existing research can help us decipher these curious findings. Past investigations attribute the presence of climate change deniers or unconcerned populations in highly impacted areas by natural disasters and temperature rises to several factors:


Limits of existing research

In terms of investigating the link between weather changes and climate change perception, the existing research neglects some key components. First, a substantial part of past work focuses on a specific natural disaster that occurred in a given year and then considers people’s opinion right after the event or compares people’s perception before and after the disaster. But climate change cannot be pictured by one specific event, it is a complex change that requires the consideration of a long-term perspective to be captured.

Second, previous research focuses on the first dimension of beliefs about climate change (i.e., on believers versus deniers). Our study expands the scope of people’s opinions, not only considering the first level (believers versus deniers) but also a second level (optimism versus pessimism regarding its reversibility).

Third, the existing body of research does not consider the existence of spatial mobility while investigating this question. A substantial part of the European population is mobile, and this intra-Europe movement is happening: there were over 1.4 million migrants within Europe in 2019 alone (Eurostat). By overlooking these points in the analysis, these studies forget that the population they observe at a given time and in a given location is, in fact, the group that chose to stay behind. Put differently, those who decide not to leave a region may well be inherently less concerned about the changing climate in that place, having chosen not to move away.


Additional explanations

Our study adds two additional explanations for the unexpected presence of less concerned and optimistic individuals in most affected regions.

First, those that experience higher summer temperature rises have other pressing concerns. Their inhabitants reveal that unemployment, purchasing power and financial crises are in the top three of what they consider to be the biggest challenges currently faced by their country. This correlation with a weaker economy and financial situation can explain why their inhabitants do not prioritise climate change, despite being the most affected. Having economic security comes before environmental concerns in the scale of needs, it appears.

Second, this study provides evidence that the most pessimistic and concerned individuals in terms of climate change have already left the most affected regions. Indeed, many people have moved away from the most affected regions (by temperature rise) over the last 20 years. Our research analyses the decision to migrate and settle in a different country for more than 2,400 intra-Europe migrants. We find that people coming from a country with a higher summer temperature rise (by 1 standard deviation above the average) are nearly 10 percentage points more likely to be migrating to seek a healthier climate compared with the average migrant.

Moving location can reveal a person’s attitudes. In our study, we argue that since migration is expensive, the individuals who are willing to bear the costs of migration and leave the most affected places for a healthier climate are those that are more concerned about climate change and more pessimistic about future prospects in the affected regions. Consequently, the remaining population are a group that see some positive prospects and are relatively more optimistic about the future. It is important to say that this population might have good reasons to expect a positive future in these areas, especially if the region is significantly investing in adaptive innovation and developing mitigation strategies. Nonetheless, without concrete action to address rising temperatures, such optimism could prove unfounded.


Policy implications

Europeans highly exposed to temperature increases are perceiving the risk they are exposed to. This suggests that informative campaigns about climate change have been effective. But the need for policy is now elsewhere. If the optimism about its reversibility is not justified, because no concrete actions are taken and few financial resources are allocated to invest in technology and adaptation strategies, this population is at risk.

Political leaders of all regions should be urged – and empowered through funding – to deploy concrete actions on climate change. The demand to do so might not come from an optimistic population, but that is no reason not to act. Actions that could play a significant role include increasing green spaces in urban areas, enhancements to renewable energy, the development of sustainable transportation, improvement of buildings’ energy efficiency, and R&D investments into climate engineering technologies aimed at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Without these proactive steps, the optimism of the population may lead to complacency, which could exacerbate future risks.


Author: Marion Breton