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30 May 2024

Short-term priorities can 'crowd out' support for climate policies

Public support for policies which aim to combat climate change can be crowded out by other more immediate crises which divert people’s attention, a new study has found.

Climate diplomacy

With a limited capacity for worry, researchers found that concern generated by events unfolding in the short term can distract public support from events seen as having a longer-term horizon, such as climate change, harming efforts to introduce costly policy designed to mitigate its impacts.

Policy-makers should therefore focus on emphasising the immediacy and urgency of climate change to help mobilise support, the researchers stressed, also taking the opportunity to link the issue to other events seen as more immediate to boost its salience.

The findings were revealed in a new paper, The climate crisis, policy distraction and support for fuel taxation, co-authored by Dr Julian Limberg (King’s College London), with Professor Philipp Genschel (University of Bremen) and Professor Laura Seelkopf (Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich).

Our findings help to explain why the potential of the climate crisis to boost support for costly mitigation measures has its limits. In the baseline, the climate crisis competes with other crises and events that have a more short-term time horizon, which divert people's attention.

Research team

“General myopia, but particularly distraction, undermines the capacity of the climate crisis to boost support for costly countermeasures.”

Data for the study was gathered from a survey of 21,000 people across 17 European countries run by YouGov.

In it, people were provided with information about the climate crisis before being asked about their support for a tax on fossil fuels. Researchers found that, in this scenario, people were more likely to support a tax by 12 percentage points, tipping public opinion towards net support for the policy.

In other survey scenarios, respondents were reminded of other more immediate crises, like COVID-19 or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after being served with the climate crisis information. This significantly reduced their subsequent willingness to support a fossil fuel tax.

Baseline support for the imposition of a fossil fuel tax was about 28 per cent. In the group provided with the climate crisis primer, support rose to about 40 per cent with 35 per cent opposed. In the groups provided with the COVID and Russian invasion addendums, support dropped back to 30 per cent, with opposition at 45 per cent.

Combatting this distraction will require policy-makers to boost the salience of climate change as an issue when seeking support for potentially costly mitigation measures.

The researchers said: “Policy-makers should look to keep climate policy in crisis mode to increase salience. This helps to keep citizens primed on the urgency of climate change and the need for policy remedies. One important instrument to achieve this purpose are self-imposed deadlines such as the International Energy Agency's ‘Net Zero by 2050’ scenario or the EU's ‘fit for 55’ plan.

“The benefit of these deadlines is to regularly make present climate policies look behind target and deficient. This helps to ramp up worries, focus attention and increase tolerance for remedial action, including fuel taxation.”


You can read the full paper, published in the European Journal of Political Research, here: The climate crisis, policy distraction and support for fuel taxation.

In this story

Julian Limberg

Senior Lecturer in Public Policy