Has climate change concern dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s always in the news, comes up in most conversations, and we are reminded of it all the time – COVID-19 is currently very present in most people’s lives. Even though some psychological theories suggest that we can only worry about a finite number of things, surveys indicate that worries about the pandemic have not simply replaced worries about the climate crisis.

Over a year after the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 is still very much present in most of our lives. The media report news via daily livestreams, the topic continues to come up with friends and family, and with everyone wearing face masks and lots of people having to work from home, we  are constantly reminded of the presence of the virus – rightfully so.

However, what about climate change? The issue is just as pressing, but I can’t help but wonder whether worries about the climate crisis have taken a backseat in face of the pandemic, which continues to occupy our everyday lives.

COVID-19 has not reduced worries about climate change, but rather diverted our attention

Notably, COVID-19 is an urgent issue we need to deal with. But does it impact our perceptions about the severity of climate change? A theory called the “finite pool of worry” theory, would say so, as the theory suggests that we have a “finite pool of worry”. In other words, we can only be worried about a limited number of things at the same time, so if a new major crisis occurs that we all worry about, this can replace some of the problems we once used to worry about.

Recent studies do however suggest that people actually did not start to worry less about climate change after the pandemic had started. A study conducted in the UK has found that neither the worry about climate change, nor the perceptions about the severity of the issue changed or reduced in the UK. Thus, worrying about the pandemic does not seem to have replaced people’s worries about climate change, as suggested by the “finite pool of worry” theory.

Another study suggests that rather having a “finite pool of worry”, we might actually have a “finite pool of attention”. Data collected from six metropolitan areas in three countries (US, China and Italy) suggests that even though people did indeed start to worry more about the pandemic (rightfully so), they did not start to worry less about climate change. Instead, people seemed to have paid less attention to the climate crisis, which seems plausible given the news coverage about the pandemic.

Similarly, survey by the European Environmental Bureau and Pew Research Center show that worries about climate change are still high. Pew Research Center reports that across 14 couuntries polled, climate change and infectious diseases are the two top major threats. Having collected responses from over 22,000 young people in 23 European countries, the results from the survey commissioned by the European Environmental Bureau show that young Europeans ranked global warming and environmental degradation as the top two worries, followed by infectious diseases and poverty.

To sum it up, just as many headlines currently report that “COVID-19 is here to stay”, so are worries about climate change.

Further readings & resources

  • Evensen, D., et al. (2021) Effect of “finite pool of worry” and COVID-19 on UK climate change perceptions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Link
  • Sisco, M., Constantino, S., Gao, Y., Tavoni, M., Cooperman, A., Bosetti, V., & Weber, E. (2020). A Finite Pool of Worry or a Finite Pool of Attention? Evidence and Qualifications. [Link]
  • European Environmental Bureau (EBB). Pan-European Survey – Main mulit-country report. [Link]
  • Pew Research Center (2020). Despite Pandemic, Many Europeans Still See Climate Change as Greatest Threat to Their Countries. [Link]

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