3.2. Who is Responsible for Climate Change; Who Should Ideally and Who Will Realistically Take Action?
Questions about responsibilities for the climate crisis as well as about the demand for action show that many respondents chose a range of blame agents (see Figure 3
). About 70% of the respondents blame advanced developed countries, business and industry, and society as a whole. About 60% think that politicians are responsible, and half (52%) regard each individual person as being responsible (see Figure 3
). The argument for their choice becomes apparent through the open question asking the reason for their decision: “Policy decisions depend on business and industry, whose representatives take part in committees and determine what is decided” (P426); “Probably nobody, as nobody wants to forego the luxury that is part of everyday life” (P365). The answers to the question “Who should ideally do something against climate change?” are, analogous to the question about responsibilities, distributed fairly evenly, with 63% for “each individual person” and 61.5% “the transition countries”. This clearly is an indicator that respondents have recognized climate change truly as a collective action problem (see also Figure 3
). Answers to the question “Who will realistically do something against climate change?” show a high level of despair as it becomes obvious in the following statement “Who will realistically do something against climate change? Nobody. Everybody is talking about it, but the goals will not be achieved and are actually a joke. I think that if not all countries change their thinking and really cooperate, climate change cannot be curtailed anymore“ (P392).
These findings are presented against the background of the responses to the closed question about the climate-damaging activities respondents can imagine reducing or abandoning. These are depicted in Figure A1
of the Appendix A
. It can be seen that nearly all of the respondents are willing to do something to help curtail climate change and seem willing to adopt one or more activities from the list. Nearly every respondent is willing to take on low-cost behavior changes [41
] such as turning off the light (91.3%) when not needed, recycling glass and plastic bottles (87.9%), and using energy-efficient light bulbs (83.5%). This is not surprising, as widespread recycling became part of the German culture a while ago. Turning off unnecessary lights and buying energy-efficient bulbs save money and are simple to conduct. Concerning the distinction between high and low-cost behavior change we follow Diekmann and Preisendörfer [68
]. They used German samples, which are culturally comparable, but of course there still remains a subjective personal interpretation of what low or high cost is. Of course, items such as “avoiding the purchase of high consuming cars” are ambivalent because financial reasons can also play an important role. The high number people willing to buy regionally produced food is backed by the annual survey of the German Nature Awareness Study (BfN 2019), and by evidence of higher consumer trust in regionally produced food.
Around 52% will seriously consider “reducing long-distance journeys/not flying”. This is a high number compared to the assessment that this is most regarded as a high-cost behavior. The reasons for this high number can of course be social desirability which is difficult to fully exclude, but it does hint at a growing moral sensitivity over avoidable flying. However, fewer than 50% are willing to reduce those activities that have really high climate altering effects, such as eating less meat or none at all; and forsaking driving, which can be classified as personal high-cost behavior changes. “Taking part at environmental/climate campaigns” is the action favored least by respondents. Here we suspect the influence of sample bias as no people below the age of 18 and a high number of people above 60 were interviewed.
3.3. Mechanisms of Moral Disengagement
In the survey data, five out of the eight psychosocial mechanisms described by Bandura (see above) were identified.
The first and most widely used one is displacement of responsibility. This is also the most coded one in our data (397 codings). There is a close link to the results presented in Figure 3
, which displays those actors named as responsible for the climate crisis and overcoming it (multiple answers were possible). We find similar but not identical patterns and categorizations in the answers to the open questions, namely that politics and/or business and industry should take action. Not surprisingly politics and business and industry are seen as highly interwoven—almost always in a negative way—and are stated together. ”Society as a whole”, an important category in the closed question on responsibilities, is less clearly emphasized. Instead the particular group of “the rich” is named through the notion of being too greedy. A final sub-group frequently named are “egoistic people” who enjoy “too high a living standard” and who are seen as not being willing to change their lives because of ignorance and/or comfort requirements.
The following quotations underline these observations: “As long as the government and big companies do not contribute to climate protection or even function as a role model, the sustainability actions of the little person has no big positive impact” (P885); “the politicians couldn’t care less” (P45; P90); “The carelessness and greed for profit of the rich (P78; P135; P398). These statements confirm the two results of the 2001 study, namely the governance–distrust interpretation (government fails to deliver supportive politics and actions together with the observation that economic interests are predominant and powerful) and the comfort–interpretation (reluctance to abandon habits and preferred lifestyles). The governance–distrust interpretation is even more pronounced in the repeated fusion of politics, business, and industry acting in a democratically undermining way. Concerning the comfort–interpretation perspective, respondents today state more forcefully than in the 2001 study that it is the other people who are not prepared to change their luxury lifestyles and habits who are a primary cause of emissions increases. In the present study more of a minority assert that they do not want to change anything. That people blame other individual emitters is in line with attribution theory [69
]. In particular, the two mechanisms called “fundamental attribution error”, which refers to the tendency to over-emphasize the role of personal traits in influencing the behavior of others, and “self-serving bias”, where external circumstances, such as lobbying bias, shape behavior justification support these reactions [70
Overall, it is difficult to draw a line between “displacement of responsibility” and where “proper attribution of responsibility” starts. There are indeed a lot of results from scientists (e.g., [71
]) as well as from reliable technology writers (e.g., [19
]) that the problem of lobbyism is probably the biggest barrier to the successful combating of the climate emergency.
Yet Peeters et al. argue that regardless of official policies, actions are conducted by individuals [44
] (p. 435), [73
]. In addition, individual emissions reductions may combine to buttress collective environmental policies. Moreover, individuals hold the obligation to vote for parties that seek such policies effectively implemented [13
Social, economic and moral justifications is the second-most coded disengagement mechanism (262 codings). Economic justifications are dominant as a sub-category (see quotes below) but examples for social and moral justifications can also be found but to a lesser degree. Examples for the first sub-category are “There are a lot of things that could be changed, but they are simply too expensive.” (P983, P982); “Everyone is responsible for climate change. It starts with the question of how we decide to—or are able to—get our electricity. I would love to use green electricity, but I’m a student and can’t afford it” (P459). Another quote still emphasizes an economic justification and in addition pointing out that time matters: “although I know better, I find myself violating my own desires and ideals on a daily basis. I’d really love to keep my personal CO2
footprint as small and as low as possible, but I actually wind up driving almost 100 km to work because the rents in Munich are so exorbitant. I suppose I could take the train, but it would mean a four-to-five-hour commute every day! This is why I’m a classic environmental polluter. Another reason is that I’m not a vegan: in fact, I usually eat quite a bit of meat!” (P1028). Saving time as an important justification is also evident in this quote, which seeks to justify air travel: “taking the plane is simply a matter of saving time. We can do a lot of things, but we can’t recoup time” (P979). Overall, “people and organizations hoping to block action to reduce carbon emissions simply talk up the deniable benefits of fossil-fuel energy use, while ignoring non-emitting alternatives, overstating their costs, and understating their feasibility” [11
] (p. 7). Examples for social and moral justification are displayed in the following quotes: “If—as I do—everyone would generally refrain from long-distance travel, use green electricity, and throw away as little food as possible, there wouldn’t even be a need to pose the question. But social norms often cause a person to feel like an outcast—and who wants to be one?” (P953); “Protecting the climate leads to exclusion from your circle of friends” (P129; P861); and “Climate protection threatens too many jobs, like suppliers and in the coal and oil industries.” (e.g., P456, P842, P887, P896, P905).
This reasoning is hard to change because people like to preserve a sense of self-worth while causing harm by their activities [10
]. One example is the (false) claim that eating meat is necessary for a healthy diet and social inclusion [75
]. Another is expressed by members of some professional groups, such as scientists, who argue that very high-carbon behavior such as flying is “necessary”, e.g., to communicate research results personally at conferences, or that doing research in very distant places is a career-enhancing component of their work. In interviews, they greatly enjoy the privileges linked to their professional activity, including travel to interesting places [76
Of course, what has been stated for displacement of responsibility is similarly applicable here. While some of the justifications are false or fail to absolve individuals from responsibility (e.g., “green” electricity in Germany is—on average—as cheap as the conventional one) some are indeed appropriate, e.g., that the public transportation system in Germany is neglecting rural areas and that living in big cities is becoming unaffordable for groups on very low incomes. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of possibilities for individual decisions: “People have to be willing to protect our Earth, even if it leads to financial sacrifices or other disadvantages” (P 394).
Disregard, distortion or denial of harmful effects still is an observable mechanism (148 codings). When people act to serve their self-interest but produce damaging outcomes, they turn away from the harm they cause or they minimize it. They may also seek to discredit the scientific evidence of harm (e.g., [19
]). Although not many respondents to our present survey deny climate change as such, there are some who argue that warnings of climate crisis are exaggerated and “scaremongering” (P9). In this context, three example quotes are: “I think the whole discussion about climate change is founded on false assumptions. In the days of the dinosaurs—when there were no cars or factories—the CO2 content of the air was 15% higher than today (scientific basis). It was also much warmer back then than today. I consider climate change to be a completely normal natural phenomenon that doesn’t need to be combated any more than the wind” (P807); “over the Earth’s lifetime, there has always been climate change, even without humans. Panic is being propagated, and so-called scientists are trying to make themselves look important” (P749); “Climate change has been fabricated by politicians in order to extract even more taxes from the people” (P473; P531; P824). There is also a big awareness about those actors who have an interest in propagating climate denial for their advantage as one respondent observed: “It is discouraging that the big companies even try to downplay obvious research results as exaggeration“ (P885).
The mechanism of diffusing responsibility for detrimental behavior such as emitting greenhouse gas emissions is in line with our tragedy-of-the-commons interpretation (see above) from the 2001 study. As diffusion of responsibility is the most-discussed issue in climate ethics (also known as the “individual causal inefficacy”) it is not surprising that our respondents from the current study are also aware of climate change being a collective action problem (coded 111 times). Collective action problems are characterized as people regarding their particular contribution to a problem—in this case the climate crisis—as morally irrelevant: “In problems of collective action, an individual’s contribution to an aggregate harmful effect seems trivial, and any harm done by a group of people can always largely be ascribed to the behavior of the others in the group” [77
] (p. 85). It becomes clearer that in this way, the exercise of moral self-control is undermined by diffusing responsibility for the climate crisis [27
] (p. 19), [50
]. The widely used argument here is that “the greenhouse gases of any particular individual make no observable contribution to global warming” (…) is “wrong because the expected amount of harm is greater than not emitting”([44
] (p. 433); for a detailed constructive discussion and finally a plausible invalidation of the counterarguments see [41
Examples from our respondents are “I think about what I—as a single person—can change if there are several billion people on the planet who don’t want to change anything “ (P098), and a very large number of respondents opined, “the individual has no influence” (e.g., P379 and P240).
A large majority of our respondents see the collective tardiness in adopting climate–change–mitigating behavior as something that all people reluctantly share. Yet, the cumulative effects of these actions have resulted in dangerous global climate change.
One important theoretical explanation and also part of a solution is based on Bandura’s self-efficacy theory, which he supported as being applicable to the climate crisis [11
]. His key is that “people will approach, explore, and try to manage situations within their perceived capabilities, but unless they are externally coerced, they avoid transactions with those aspects of their environment that they perceive exceed their coping abilities”[78
] (p. 14). Heald emphasizes that the key word here is “perceived.” [11
] (p. 5). “It is not just people’s abilities that affect their performance in life, but also their perception of their abilities—their belief that addressing an issue is within their individual and collective capabilities”. In this sense, self-efficacy theory emphasizes the importance of avoiding hopelessness and despair, which are feelings that are very visible in our data, in particular as part of the diffusing responsibility mechanism.
The mechanism called exonerative (or advantageous) comparison was coded 41 times. We found respondents willing to turn detrimental practices into righteous ones, e.g., by emphasizing the higher GHG emissions of China and/or the U.S., than those of Germany (or Switzerland in the 2001 study), or comparing their behavior to people who practice a more luxury-carbon-intensive lifestyle. Merely pointing the finger at the worst offenders encourages comparison with people who emit more greenhouse gases in order to let the avoider off the hook [44
]. Two example quotes from our survey are “... and how does it help the climate if I restrict my own car-based mobility, but an ever-growing number of cars are being built, sold, and driven all over the world?” (P1012); and “as long as there are Formula One races, politicians and others fly around the world in private jets, and big companies like Vattenfall, Amazon, and Ikea don’t pay taxes, I’ll separate my garbage, but that’s all.” (P52)
3.4. Summarizing Comparison of the Two Studies
These results show that the majority of contemporary respondents know and care about the climate crisis and its harmful effects compared to the 2001 study, in which some uncertainties were still expressed about the timing and severity of climate change. Another difference is that the managerial-fix interpretation (belief in technological solutions and regulatory innovation) is less pronounced in the current data, while the governance-distrust interpretation is even stronger. Actually, both correspond closely with each other. Respondents recognize that there are technological solutions available (renewable energy and electric cars are mentioned) which the German government doesn’t want to support too much because of lobby interests, e.g., of the oil/coal industry or the German car companies which prefer to sell SUVs as high emitting vehicles. Several respondents already have recognized that technology has a lot of negative impacts or at least rebound effects, as is expressed in the following quotes: “even though new technologies are already being used, economic growth means there will ultimately be no reduction in CO2 emissions” (P363); “Electric cars were already around back in the 1970s, but the oil lobby is simply too strong. The development of more environmentally friendly technologies has been going on for ages, but they’re only introduced on a gradual, limited basis by design” (P520; P722).
Overall, current respondents overwhelmingly agree on the necessity to act, emphasizing that “not enough is being done up to now” and that multiple actors are responsible for action, including themselves. However, there is still denial by favoring displacing responsibility or even assigning guilt to others (e.g., government, business and industry, lobbies, “the rich”, the “egoistic people”), refusing to be a first mover and to engage in more than just low-cost behavior. This means, compared to the 2001 study, that denial is not so much observable in terms of pronouncing it with words, but that it continues to be existent in terms of instigating climate-change mitigation action.