We are just out of the field in fourteen markets, a study of 14,000 people assessing trust in institutions to tackle the single biggest threat we face — the climate emergency. As the world gathers in Glasgow next week for COP26, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, business leaders are busily making commitments to adapt their supply chains, improve product offerings and reduce their climate impact. But our 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on Climate Change finds profound skepticism about business delivering against these promises. Only government is seen as having the power to make change. This reflects an insight that we saw in the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update around the handling of COVID-19 — in the face of global crises people look first to government to take action.
Reversing the trend of our recent studies, and as the real world feels the effects of rising climates such as floods and wildfires, we find that Government (46 percent) is expected to lead on climate action, seventeen points higher than business (29 percent) and nineteen points higher than NGOs (27 percent). In fact, nearly two-thirds of respondents (62 percent) say that business will not make the necessary changes to avoid the worst consequences of climate change unless forced to comply with new government regulation. And 58 percent of respondents said that people will not make the necessary changes to their lifestyle unless compelled by government action. Government is expected to subsidize new technologies (76 percent) while mitigating the cost of climate action through retraining (73 percent).
For Business, trust is in the balance. A serious warning signal on over-statement is that, of all societal leaders, CEOs are the least trusted source on climate change (42 percent), in sharp contrast to scientists/climate experts (76 percent) and a person like yourself (64 percent). Put bluntly, CEOs are working from a trust deficit position when it comes to presenting climate policy changes in their business. Moreover, over two-thirds of respondents (68 percent) told us that they have problems with climate-friendly products because they cost more, do not work as well and are inconvenient. Nearly two-thirds of consumers (64 percent) said that they would boycott brands based on their beliefs on climate change. And over half of employees (52 percent) said they would resort to workplace activism if their company was not doing enough to address climate change. While we have seen this before in our studies, the strength of this feeling is stark.
The expectation of Business is clear, lead by example. To keep trust, companies need to have science-based targets (78 percent) and have climate experts in senior positions (76 percent). There is a requirement for Business to partner in a substantive manner, cooperating with competitors (76 percent), and also with NGOs and government to develop climate change solutions (76 percent). The burden is on Business to make environmentally friendly brands cheaper; 69 percent of respondents said it should not fall on them to pay more for climate friendly solutions. There are big rewards for companies that meet this higher bar for behavior. Fifty-nine percent of consumers will buy or advocate for brands based on climate change belief and over half of employees will recommend the company as a place to work (53 percent), while 88 percent of investors say that companies with a Net Zero plan deserve a premium.
This is a disappointing study for NGOs, which have in the past been the most trusted institution in the Edelman Trust Barometer. NGOs are the most trusted on climate change action (57 percent) compared to government (49 percent) and Business (46 percent). But heads of NGOs and climate activists are far less trusted (16 and 17 points, respectively) than scientists as a source of information on climate change. Close to two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) believe that environmental NGOs will have more impact if they enhance collaboration with corporations instead of being more aggressive in holding corporations accountable. Three-quarters of people (75 percent) want NGOs to use their influence to generate public and government support for new policies and programs.
The media has a vital role, but politicization of the climate debate has neutered this traditional source of quality information that enables behavior change. Two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents told us that they don’t know a lot about climate change solutions, including what they as individuals should do to make change. Fifty-five percent said they don’t know a lot about the causes or consequences of climate change. More than half told us that they cannot find trustworthy information about climate change (54 percent). One of the most important trust-building activities for the media is to educate people on the challenges and trade-offs involved in addressing climate change (78percent). Importantly, the media should seek to balance the conversation. Alongside presenting data that is clearly a call to action, there is a desire to hear about where progress is being made, particularly in the technology sphere. This is important in the context of our study finding that over half of respondents believe there has been little progress in the fight against climate change (53 percent) and nearly half of respondents believe we have already lost the fight (49 percent). The media has a clear role in giving people the hope that the situation will change with collective action.
The United Nations said that the present emissions reduction plans will fall far below the aim of the Paris Agreement, allowing a 2.7-degree temperature rise this century. The UN reports that most countries pledge climate neutrality but have little substance behind them. Governments are squabbling, with the U.S. and Europe pressuring China and India, who respond by saying that the West has been responsible for the bulk of the present problem through 200 years of pollution. There is a ray of hope in our study, with three in four respondents (75 percent) recognizing the need for big lifestyle changes to prevent the worst consequences of climate change and 60 percent seeing the potential for improved health or quality of life (56 percent). There are clearly no easy solutions for tackling the climate emergency. But it is the case that the public now want action — and they want those running government, business, media companies and NGOs to work together in a way they have never done before. COP26 must be the turning point for all our sakes.
Richard Edelman is CEO.