COVD-19 may be cutting coverage on the climate crisis, but that doesn’t mean people have stopped caring about the climate.
2020 began with wildfires raging across Australia in an unusually intense bushfire season. Driven by drought, high temperatures and lightning, this was a stark reminder of how climate change contributes to the threat of natural disasters. Simultaneously, the world was being plunged into another disaster; COVID-19 rapidly spread across the planet, and by mid-March the World Health Organisation declared it to be a pandemic. With a large number of resources and media attention being directed towards this immense health crisis, a team of researchers set out to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected public concern about the climate emergency. The result was surprisingly reassuring.
The team, led by Darrick Evensen from the University of Edinburgh, analysed survey data from the UK where participants were asked about the seriousness of the climate crisis. In addition to the responses to these surveys between 2019 and 2020, trends of UK-geolocated posts of Twitter were used to analyse whether coverage and public views on climate change have changed. Additionally, the team wanted to test whether there is a finite pool of worry that a person can experience.
The “finite pool of worry” hypothesis predicts that the level of concern for the climate crisis will drop as other issues become more significant. This is due to there only being a limited amount of things that a person can worry about at a time. The effects of the 2008 economic collapse have been cited as supporting this hypothesis. Between April 2008 and October 2009, a survey found that the proportion of Americans who saw global warming to be a “very serious” problem dropped from 44% to 35%. This decline could be seen among different demographic groups. A 2010 paper argues that this decline in concern for the climate crisis was due to concerns shifting towards the economic difficulties that people were facing, such as unemployment.
In contrast, Evensen’s study did not support this hypothesis. While the Twitter usage of the phrase “climate” declined following the emergence of COVID-19, no significant decline was observed in whether people saw climate change to be a serious threat. In fact, between the two years, agreement with climate change being real and acknowledgement that it is caused by human action showed a small yet significant increase. These latest findings match with those of a separate report from 2020 in the United States. While the prevalence of COVID-19 was associated with a reduced discussion about the climate crisis on social media, worries about the climate and support for climate policies increased.
These results are both surprising yet understandable: people in the UK feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic far more strongly than those of the climate crisis. It would be reasonable if public concern about the climate dropped in response to lockdowns, loss and unemployment. This is what the “finite pool of worry” hypothesis predicts after all. However, in the time between the two surveys (2008–2020), significant events occurred related to the climate crisis: the media reported on mass climate protests, the UK government committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the Australian wildfires dominated media coverage in the early parts of last year.
Another reason why this new data does not support the “finite pool of worry” hypothesis may be that the outbreak of COVID-19 and the climate crisis are both symptoms of the same problem. Unsustainable use of resources, such as the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of natural habitats feed into these two crises. As wildfires lead to ecosystem damage and the displacement of people and overcrowding, the probability of outbreaks increases while the ability to control them decreases. When Cyclone Amphan battered eastern India and Bangladesh in May 2020, shelters could only be filled to one-third of capacity to maintain social distancing to reduce transmission of COVID-19. The climate crisis, loss of biodiversity and human well-being are all intertwined.
The data suggests that even during a pandemic, members of the public are still concerned about climate change. This offers some hope. Despite all of the current challenges that people are facing, concern about the climate crisis in the UK and USA has not been negatively affected. When something is a concern, then important steps to address it are more likely to be taken.
Written by Sophie Teall and edited by Samantha Cargill