European’s fear is not shown through climate fatigue, rather than being in denial.
During a critical period where we need to increase our efforts, there has been a regression. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, recently expressed concern that the joint effort to combat the climate crisis is losing momentum. Guterres’ statement holds true as the overall response has been inadequate. However, it is not solely the fault of politicians.
Recent surveys on voting intentions for the upcoming June 2024 European parliament elections reveal a clear trend of climate fatigue. It is predicted that European green parties will experience a significant decrease in their number of seats, while conservative parties with a climate-skeptical stance are expected to gain a considerable number of seats.
The change in public opinion could potentially lead to the EU reconsidering its “green deal” policy, which has been a major focus during Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency of the European Commission. Many member states, who hold power in the EU, are doubtful of this policy. In the upcoming general election in the Netherlands on November 22nd, Frans Timmermans, a former European environment commissioner and creator of the green deal, will face challenges in gaining support from the Dutch public. A majority of them support farmers who are against government proposals to decrease pollution by reducing the number of livestock.
There is widespread doubt about the reality of climate change in the United States, particularly among supporters of President Trump. A recent YouGov poll shows that only 37% of Trump voters consider the climate crisis to be a significant issue, compared to 95% of Biden voters. Additionally, only 24% of Trump voters believe that human activity is the cause of climate change. Many Republicans reject the mainstream belief and instead view it as a fabricated story promoted by attention-seeking scientists who are controlled by a global agenda, including entities such as Chinese electric car manufacturers and supporters of Greta Thunberg. Interestingly, countries such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil show higher levels of willingness to pay higher taxes to combat climate change compared to Japan, Canada, and Italy.
The pressing issue at hand is: how can we prioritize the climate crisis for both politicians and the general public? The initial action to take is acknowledging that Europeans are not becoming less worried about the consequences of unpredictable climate patterns. In fact, they are directly experiencing and fearing the effects as Europe faces more frequent heatwaves, wildfires, storms, and floods.
However, there is also a fear among people about the potential personal costs of the necessary shift to sustainable energy sources. According to the consulting company McKinsey, the global transition to achieving net zero emissions will require an annual investment of $3.5 trillion in fixed assets until 2050. This amount accounts for approximately a quarter of all taxes collected worldwide. There is currently no clear solution for financing this transition in a way that alleviates concerns for families, individuals, small businesses, and farmers who fear financial ruin. Ordinary citizens are becoming increasingly aware that they may be burdened with steep expenses, such as home renovations to meet energy efficiency regulations.
The European Commission has proposed a plan to improve the energy efficiency of buildings by 2050 (2030 for new buildings). Currently, buildings in the EU account for over 40% of energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, in countries like Italy, more than half of existing homes do not meet the new standards and would require costly upgrades. A study conducted by the Vision thinktank, with which I am affiliated, estimates that Italian families would need to spend approximately €500 billion over the next 10 years, equating to an average of €40,000 per household affected. This has caused many families, already struggling due to economic stagnation and inflation, to view the green deal as a nightmare rather than a move towards a fairer system of distributed energy production.
The experience with subsidising the retrofitting of homes offers clues as to what has gone wrong with existing green policies. Italy’s finance minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, recently admitted that three successive Italian governments have spent €109bn in three years on updating residential buildings, but have still only reached 3% of the country’s housing stock. The Italian national subsidy scheme was generous: initially, the state reimbursed 110% of the cost of retrofitting a home. This created an incentive for both landlords and builders to inflate their invoices.
We must change the perception of public subsidies as lacking accountability and instead view them as investments with measurable outcomes that voters can influence. In Italy, banks ought to establish micro-loan programs to cover the initial expenses of improving building energy efficiency, which can be paid back through future energy savings. In the Netherlands, governments should have the foresight to create industrial strategies that encourage the expansion of meat production into innovative, sustainable biofuels.
Green politicians, meanwhile, have made communications mistakes for which they may pay a political price. In Germany, the term Verbotsgesetze is used to describe a tendency to pursue sustainability through all sort of bans and prohibitions (from gas boilers to controversial research on geoengineering). Discontent with green policies is not necessarily a sign that people are unconcerned by climate change. More plausibly, they are tired of being lectured to and impatient with the failure to recognise that the energy transition can’t be achieved by one-size-fits-all prescriptions that pay scant attention to implementation and cost at the individual level. We need more creativity to craft solutions. Less lecturing and more engagement. After all, we will win the battle for the radical transformation required only if citizens see themselves as part of it, rather than as passive consumers of top-down decisions.
Francesco Grillo holds a position as a visiting fellow at the European University Institute in Florence and also serves as the director of the thinktank Vision.