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Climate fatigue isn’t a sign that Europeans are in denial – it’s a sign of their fear
At a time when we should be accelerating action, there is backtracking … We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open.” A few months ago, the UN secretary general António Guterres used these words to warn that the collective battle against the climate crisis is losing political steam. Guterres was right: the collective response is pitiful. But it’s not just the politicians.
Clear evidence of climate fatigue emerges from recent opinion polls on voting intentions in the next European parliament elections, in June 2024. While European green parties are expected to lose more than a third of their seats, rightwing climate-sceptic conservatives are expected to win big.
This shift in public sentiment may even result in the EU backtracking on its so-called green deal, a core policy that has defined Ursula von der Leyen’s term as president of the European Commission. Scepticism is widespread within the member states whose governments call the shots in the EU. In the general election in the Netherlands on 22 November, Frans Timmermans, a former European environment commissioner and architect of the green deal, will have his work cut out to win over the Dutch public – a majority of whom support farmers in opposing government plans to cut pollution by reducing livestock herds.
Climate scepticism is also rife across the Atlantic – though with added polarisation and Maga characteristics. According to a recent YouGov poll, only 37% of Trump voters recognise the climate crisis as an important issue, compared with 95% of Biden voters. And only 24% of Trump voters believe that the climate is changing because of human activity. For many Republicans, the mainstream narrative is instead an invention of publicity-seeking scientists operating as puppets of a global lobby, encompassing a wide range of actors from Chinese electric car manufacturers to Greta Thunberg supporters. Ironically, the share of the population willing to pay more tax to prevent climate change is higher in India, Indonesia and Brazil than in Japan, Canada or Italy.
The urgent question now is: how can we put the climate crisis back at the top of the agenda, for politicians and the public alike? The first step is to recognise that climate fatigue in Europe has little to do with Europeans being less concerned about the impact of volatile climate systems. Indeed, people feel the effects directly and terrifyingly as the continent is increasingly battered by heatwaves, wildfires, storms and floods.
But people are also terrified of what they believe will be the cost to individuals of the required energy transition. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, the global transition to net zero will require additional investments in fixed assets of $3.5tn a year until 2050. That’s about a quarter of all the tax raised worldwide. There is still no convincing mechanism for financing this in ways that reassure families, individuals, small firms and farmers that they are not going to be bankrupted. Increasingly, ordinary citizens know that many of them will have to foot crippling bills for such things as renovating homes to make them comply with energy efficiency rules.
Just look at the European Commission’s plan to upgrade the energy performance of buildings by 2050 (2030 for new buildings). Buildings account for more than 40% of energy consumed and 36% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. But in a country such as Italy, more than half of existing homes need to be adapted to the new standards. Italian families would have to pay out about €500bn over the next decade, an average of €40,000 per affected household, according to a study done for the Vision thinktank I am affiliated to. No wonder many families, impoverished by years of economic stagnation and more recent inflation, view the green deal not as a transition to a more just model of distributed energy production, but as a waking nightmare.
The experience with subsidising the retrofitting of homes offers clues as to what has gone wrong with existing green policies. Italy’s finance minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, recently admitted that three successive Italian governments have spent €109bn in three years on updating residential buildings, but have still only reached 3% of the country’s housing stock. The Italian national subsidy scheme was generous: initially, the state reimbursed 110% of the cost of retrofitting a home. This created an incentive for both landlords and builders to inflate their invoices.
We need to transform what is seen as a public subsidy with no accountability into an investment whose impact is measurable in terms of results that voters can control. In Italy, banks should be called on to create micro-loan facilities so that the upfront cost of making buildings more energy-efficient is repaid by future energy savings. In the Netherlands, governments should have the vision to design industrial policies to diversify meat production into, for instance, advanced renewable biofuels.
Green politicians, meanwhile, have made communications mistakes for which they may pay a political price. In Germany, the term Verbotsgesetze is used to describe a tendency to pursue sustainability through all sort of bans and prohibitions (from gas boilers to controversial research on geoengineering). Discontent with green policies is not necessarily a sign that people are unconcerned by climate change. More plausibly, they are tired of being lectured to and impatient with the failure to recognise that the energy transition can’t be achieved by one-size-fits-all prescriptions that pay scant attention to implementation and cost at the individual level. We need more creativity to craft solutions. Less lecturing and more engagement. After all, we will win the battle for the radical transformation required only if citizens see themselves as part of it, rather than as passive consumers of top-down decisions.