Politicos, Read the Polls: Europeans Want More Climate Action

Throughout 2019 one poll after another has underscored that EU citizens are taking climate change very seriously and want to see action on climate protection on both the national and EU level. This should be a signal to Europe’s political class that they must prioritize all of the climate-related issues: from renewables to sustainable agriculture. The problem is that too many in the halls of power see climate as a “green” issue. A new generation of climate focused politicians is needed. Paul Hockenos analyses the data and comments upon the conclusions.

Extreme weather conditions due to climate change occur more and more often (Public Domain)

The People have spoken

In the latest EU survey on climate change, Special Eurobarometer 490, recently published in September, over 93% of those polled across all 28 member states affirmed that climate change is now a “serious problem.” (The highest percentage was in Sweden; the lowest in Bulgaria.) Nearly eight in ten people believe that climate change was a “very” serious problem.” At least two thirds of respondents in almost every country think climate change is a very serious problem. Majorities in eight of the 28 states said that climate is the most serious issue of all. In all but one country, concern about climate change has surged compared to a year ago — and across 24 member states, that concern has spiked at least 10%.

Demographically, those inclined to take climate change most seriously are disproportionately young, employed, educated, and well-off – precisely the social strata that’s also most inclined to vote.

One should note, the Kantar polling firm, which carried out the survey across all EU member states, conducted its questioning in April 2019—before the hottest summer on record. In total, the firm tasked with conducting the poll (on behalf of the EU Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action) spoke with 27,655 people face-to-face, at home and in the subject’s native language. The report covers perceptions of climate change; tackling climate change; attitudes toward fighting climate change; the transition to clean energy and reducing fossil fuel imports; notions about the future, such as the setting of targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate neutrality.

A clear statement

The findings could hardly be any more “in-your-face incontrovertible” — making it equally obvious that the EU’s political class is dramatically out of step with its “demoi,” the political science term for the multiple populations and citizens who actually comprise the EU; and out of whose authority, under their democratic system, that said political class derives its actual powers.

Although we’re seeing somewhat more climate action in some countries, like Germany, Austria and Sweden, no single country in Europe prioritizes climate protection as the number one issue on its agenda as highly as eight of the EU’s populations seem to do. Namely the Scandinavians, Germans, Austrian, Maltese, citizens of the UK, and the Dutch.

Nevertheless, there are a number of governments that have barely budged on climate – many of them in Central Europe – although the polls show that their electorates too have clearly come around on the topic.

Indeed, even Central Europeans, who in the past have deemed bread-and-butter issues more pressing, now have climate issues on their radar screen. In Poland and Hungary, 70% and 85% respectively deem climate change “a very serious problem”. Latvia may find itself near the bottom, but still 59% of its populous says the climate crisis is very serious.

No longer accepting excuses

This translates into a clear message for politicians in the national states and the EU, too. (In the EU, the new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen does seem to have received the missive, declaring she’ll push a Green Deal during her five-year term in office.)

While too often leaderships treat climate issues as a sure vote loser — and giving this as the reason politicians can’t take decisive action — the surveys show that the opposite is true.

One reason the political establishment is lagging behind popular opinion is because it deems climate issues “green,” and thus only fuels the engine of the Green parties, — which are themselves becoming more powerful in most European countries. The other parties, including social democrat, centrist and leftist parties, worry that by taking serious climate action they’ll play right into the court of their rivals. This is nowhere more evident than among Germany’s social democrats, who – with the exception of their illustrious federal environment minister, Svenja Schulze, have actually worked against real climate protection since the 2010 death of Hermann Scheer, one of the visionaries behind the Energiewende. Though Schulze acts very much in his spirit, she receives little support from her party colleagues.

The new poll also shows that individual EU citizens, perhaps because they’re fed up with their elected leaderships’ slow pace, are striking out on their own. Ever more Europeans – across all 28 states – said that they are personally taking action. A full 60% said that they had done something in the name of climate protection in the past six months. Yet they’re well aware that the most meaningful measures have to come from the top: about half of the interviewees say that national governments, industry, and the EU have the responsibility to do more.

A total of 93% – again more than ever – say that greenhouse gases must be slashed in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Cyprus, Malta, and Portugal lead the pack, while Finland, Latvia and Estonia bring up the rear. Even so, in the latter three nations, 85% agree that the aim should be to hit climate neutrality by 2050. More than 80% say that clean energy should qualify for subsidies while fossil fuels should be denied them. Cyprus, Malta and Greece showed the biggest majorities: 95%, 92%, and 91% respectively.

If our current generation of politicians is so set in their ways and too timid to act decisively on climate protection, then Europeans have no other option but to elect a new generation better in tune with the Zeitgeist.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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