Climate change is a cause of serious concern for many — but that doesn’t mean anxiety about the planet is always at the top of people’s agendas. As we reported last year, the effectiveness of climate change appeals can vary considerably. And other research suggests that worries about the environment can be displaced by other issues (fewer Americans reported concern about climate change after the 2008 financial crisis, for example). This latter phenomenon is known as the “finite pool of worry” hypothesis: that as some concerns creep up our radar, others become neglected.
So with COVID-19 taking up space both in the media and in our minds, are people thinking less about climate change? According to a new study in PNAS, the answer is no: climate change is now such a major concern that even serious threats of another nature don’t diminish fears at all.
Research conducted in April 2020 in the US and in May 2019 to 2020 in the UK first indicated that concerns about COVID-19 might be pushing out worries about the climate. But these studies suffered from small sample sizes, so in the new work Darrick Evensen from the University of Edinburgh and team looked at data from 1,858 UK participants taking part in a longitudinal study over the course of fourteen months.
Participants indicated how much they believed climate change was real and caused by humans by responding to five statements such as “I am convinced that climate change is really happening” and “the media is often too alarmist about issues like climate change”. They also indicated how serious a threat they felt climate change was to themselves and their own family, to the UK as a whole, to people in developing countries, and to wildlife and ecosystems.
Rather than belief in or concern about climate change diminishing over the fourteen month period, participants’ belief only seemed to strengthen: there was slightly more agreement in June 2020 that climate change was both real and caused by humans than there was at the start of the study (although the authors point out that the sizes of these effects were very small).
When asked whether COVID-19 was a bigger threat than climate change to the UK, the virus was seen to be very slightly more of a threat (43% compared to 42%). On a wider scale, however, this gap increased: 45% of participants saw climate change as a bigger threat to Europe (compared to 40% who saw COVID-19 as a bigger threat) and 55% saw climate change as a bigger threat to the world (versus 33% for COVID-19).
Despite such widespread concern, media coverage of climate change may not be making the impact one might hope. Participants were asked whether they had heard of several environment-related stories covered extensively in the news: youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion protests, the UK Climate Assembly, and wildfires in Australia, storms in the UK and melting glaciers in the Alps and Greenland. Increased knowledge of such stories did not have a significant correlation with how participants’ perception of climate change severity changed over the 14 months — suggesting that media coverage itself is not increasing people’s concern about (or willingness to do something to combat) climate change.
Finally, the team looked at around 124 million tweets sent from the UK to identify whether climate change or COVID-19 was receiving more attention from users. In this case, COVID-19 did seem to have an impact, with tweets about climate change decreasing during the period between March 2019 to August 2020. This may be related to how newsworthy the virus was — being concerned about something doesn’t necessarily mean tweeting about it.
Overall, the results suggest that the finite pool of worry hypothesis does not stand up when it comes to climate change. The team suggests that since prior research on the topic, the environment may have become a “permanent member of more people’s pool of worry” — something that just doesn’t budge, even when other concerns dominate. This may be good news: if we’re thinking about climate change we’re more likely to want to do something about it, whether on personal or structural levels.
The lack of correlation between media coverage and perceived climate change severity, however, may need further research. If news stories about climate change aren’t making a difference, then what is? If not the media, what has altered people’s “pools of worry” so significantly since previous research? Exploring the answers to these questions could provide insights to campaigners, politicians and journalists alike.