“Why European attitudes to tackling climate change differ so much from America’s”

– by Imogen Reed

You’d have thought that with everything going on in Europe, such as the problems in the financial markets and the Eurozone, the threat of climate change would be way down on the agenda. However, a poll conducted at the end of last year during the height of the Eurozone crisis, showed that the majority of Europeans think that climate change and the threat of global warming was a more serious problem than the current financial turmoil.

The survey, conducted by European pollsters found that Europeans thought climate change was the second biggest threat facing the world, second only to world hunger and drought, which you could argue are inextricably linked to climate change anyway. Over two-thirds (68%) of Europeans surveyed said that climate change was a very serious world problem, and a fifth argued it was the most serious threat the world now faced.

When you compare these figures to a similar survey taken in the United States last year which found only a third of Americans rated climate change as a very serious threat to the world, the attitudes are starkly different. Furthermore, as recently as 2006, only one third of Americans actually believed climate change was real and caused by human activity, and even now, it’s not uncommon to hear people on TV or radio denouncing climate change. In Europe, climate change denial is seen as the preserve of the crackpot, and few political figures or members of the news media would dream of mentioning it, as doing so often receives the same contempt from the European public as denying the holocaust.


These surveys raise the obvious question as to what is causing this difference in attitude. Is it that Americans are far more skeptical, or is there something else underlying these differences in attitude towards global warming? Of course, skepticism does run high in the United States. Despite being the nation that put a man on the moon, surveys have shown as many as 20% of Americans doubt the moon landings took place, while Europeans are for more trusting in their scientists and government agencies. Even the controversial climate change email scandal did little to dent the European attitude to global warming, while in America, politicians and commentators jumped on the scandal as proof the whole thing was a fabrication.

However, this inert skepticism of the American people is not the only cause of such a big difference in attitudes towards global warming compared to Europe. Coverage of issues surrounding global warming differs hugely between European and American media coverage. The mainstream news media of the United States has helped propagate climate change skepticism almost at every opportunity, pointing to the small differences in scientific agreement to suggest humans’ causing global warming is a debatable subject, despite an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community pointing to the contrary. European media, on the other hand, has taken the opposite extreme, especially the tabloid press of countries such as the United Kingdom, where climate change is used to create sensationalist headlines. Everything from localized flooding to unusual heat waves are put down to climate change, often with very little scientific evidence to back up such claims. However, this attitude is seen by most people as erring on the side of caution, and it at least ensures people are willing to act.


Public perception in Europe is also being led from above. Political bodies such as the European Union have been discussing climate change for nearly two decades, while in the United States, it is public pressure that is slowly causing politicians to take climate change seriously, not the other way around. However, this is a painfully slow process. Of course, Al Gore helped change plenty of attitudes, but Gore was a political figure before the release of his An Inconvenient Truth, which meant that his presence spearheading such a campaign automatically alienated many Republican voters, who automatically took a contrarian view. Indeed, it seems that climate change is solely an issue with the Democrats, and the more they push global warming onto the political agenda, the more steadfastly the Republicans want to accept it as nothing more than a political point. In Europe, climate change has cross-party support, and is central to European politics, partly due to the prevalence of the various Green Parties who are often in coalition with more mainstream political parties.

It is not just political figures that are leading the way in Europe, either.  Business is also addressing climate change. Famous British entrepreneur, Richard Branson, for instance, campaigns tirelessly about climate change, while environmentalism in general is seen as good business sense in Europe, rather than an inconvenience. Marks and Spencer, one of Britain’s most popular retailers, are using it to goof effect, encouraging Brits to recycle old clothes in their stores before they purchase new ones; a practice that is appealing to their consumers and driving sales, and other top name brands see the advantage of appealing to the European concern for the environment too.

Economic opportunity

This is perhaps where the biggest difference in attitude between the United States and Europe lies. In America, tackling global warming is seen as an economic threat and climate change policy reflects this. The refusal of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol was based purely on economic grounds. A unanimous vote in the US Senate demonstrated the political opposition to tackling climate change, as did former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who said the Protocol: “is not acceptable to the Administration or Congress.” Tackling climate change in America is seen as way of stifling the economy, reducing growth, costing jobs, and limiting industry’s ability to make money. However, European politicians take the opposite view.

In Europe, climate change is seen as an economic opportunity, which will open up new doors for trade and industry. Investment in energy efficient technologies, renewable energy generation and other green initiatives is seen as a way of creating jobs and helping economic growth, and the European public is already sold on the idea. Even in cloudy Britain, more people are using domestic solar panels than in the United States, despite America having a population four times the size, and across Europe, investment in wind farms, wave technology, and other renewable energy sources dwarfs what is being spent in the United States. In fact, the political support for investment in green technologies has led the European Commission to think about toughening up its pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 20% by 2020, to 30%, something that would be inconceivable in the United States.

Following the European example

However, Europeans know that the biggest hurdle for tackling climate change lies with the United States. After all, the average American produces three times more CO2 emissions than a person in France, and without America making serious changes, any attempts at tackling climate change in Europe would be mostly futile. Obama’s election in 2008 offered some optimism to the European leaders, especially after he pledged “to aggressively accelerate” the transition from oil to alternative sources of energy. However, few expect it to be an easy task to convince the rest of the political establishment, and more importantly, the American people.

Perhaps the solution lies in using the European approach. While nobody would make light of the problems the effects of global warming may cause, by treating it as an economic opportunity, rather than a threat, would help make defuse many of the concerns felt by the American people. The people are halfway there too. According to a Rasmussen report, many Americans already agree that renewables are a better investment for America than fossil fuels, so it shouldn’t take much to convince the population that renewables are the future – especially if gas prices continue to rise at the current rate. Of course, there are those that view renewable energy and sustainable resources as the concern of the hippy, but these attitudes can surely be overcome. After all, it was the United States and not Europe that started the entire environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s, and surely, that same concern for the environment still lies within the American people.

Imogen Reed is a finance and economics writer based in London, and covers issues on greener living showing how financial success and economic growth can be achieved whilst reigning in the damage humanity does to the environment.