Trust and Climate Change: The Necessity of Optimism
Pessimistic views on addressing the climate crisis inhibit change.
Fear-based communication may have gotten people to pay attention to climate change, but we need optimism to take action.
Trust and optimism operate hand in hand when it comes to addressing climate change.
Edelman is just out of the field with its third Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Climate Change. We conducted the study in fourteen markets across North and South America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East at the end of September and early October. We find a pessimistic worldview that inhibits change. We also recognize a profound skepticism about the role of Business, more about talk than action, and a diminished trust level for corporations and their CEOs. But we see a way forward based on trust, with tangible outcomes on commitments enabling the Optimism that is necessary for behavior change on climate.
We have an institutional crisis of trust, with declines in every one of the four major institutions: Trust in NGOs (58 percent, down 4 points), Government (50 percent, down 7 points), Business (49 percent, down 5 points) and Media (44 percent, down 9 points). There is special discontent with Business regarding trust in climate change, which stands 13 points lower than its 62 percent trust level in our main trust study from January, because industry is seen as too focused on short-term profit. Countries deeply distrust each other on climate change; respondents across the fourteen nations deeply distrust key countries like India (just 25 percent trust) and China (just 28 percent) to do what is right on climate change. Only about one-third of respondents believe that governments are doing a good job on balancing climate needs with economic growth and reliable affordable energy. Traditional leaders, such as government leaders (39 percent trust), journalists (42 percent), and CEOs (36 percent), are all deeply distrusted to tell the truth about climate change, dropping four to five points in the last year alone.
Fear has taken us to awareness. Now we need optimism to make change.
We know that fear-based communication has gotten people to pay attention. More than three quarters of our respondents are worried about climate change. A full 55 percent are climate pessimists: people who are worried about climate change and not hopeful that we can overcome its challenges. Just 22 percent are optimists – both concerned and hopeful. This is consistent with data from two years ago, which showed half of our respondents believing the climate fight is lost. Nearly three quarters of respondents who report a gap in how climate-friendly they are and how climate-friendly they would like to be feel they lack information on climate-friendly products and solutions. Both pessimists and optimists agree that they’d be inspired to do more in their lives on climate if they saw more reporting on solutions — and that the media isn’t doing enough of it. NGOs, a critical potential partner for Business and Government, are seen by a majority of respondents as not doing enough to catalyze change.
We find that if we can inspire optimism, consumers are more likely to make big life changes. Specifically, there is a 19-point boost in buying or boycotting brands based on their climate actions (from 57 percent to 76 percent as they move from pessimist to optimist) and a 17-point jump in taking many actions to reduce one’s own carbon footprint, even if costly and inconvenient (29 percent to 46 percent). Climate solutions are also seen as a catalyst for new technologies by two thirds of respondents, especially in developing markets such as UAE (82 percent), Saudi Arabia (78 percent), and India (76 percent) and this trend holds across all age groups and income levels. Optimism also powers climate advocacy, with a twenty-point jump in putting pressure on peers to live more sustainably when people are optimists (45 percent of pessimists vs. 65 percent of optimists) and a 21-point rise in pushing for policy action (26 percent to 47 percent).
Trust and optimism operate hand in hand. Our data tells us that if people distrust institutions, climate optimism is nearly impossible. To build trust, people need to see climate solutions that benefit them and their communities, NGOs must inspire people to reduce their carbon footprints, and Government must make the energy transition palatable by balancing climate needs with affordable energy and quality of life. Optimism builds on that foundation of trust, but people also need to see companies keep commitments, to consume news of climate progress, to see climate policies benefit them and their countries, and to see climate-friendly lifestyles as attractive. In doing so, we could reverse the Optimist/Pessimist equation from the present 22/55 to 52/25.
We are on the cusp of the COP 28 meeting in the UAE, the most important annual convening of institutions on the environment. Business must continue to stand its ground on ESG, delivering on its commitments. Given the trust discount on climate, companies need to continue to work with NGOs and Government in partnership in this effort. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust and Climate Change tells us that we need to regain the high ground by demonstrating that good climate policy can be good both for the individual and the world. Fear has taken us to awareness. Now we need optimism to make change.