How Demographics Influence Environmental Behavior

  • Post category:Blog

In cooperation with Unsaid | Unsaid is a blog that aims to create a space for open and honest conversations about masculinity, gender norms and gender equality.

The beginnings of environmental awareness

Over the past century, mankind has slowly started to realize that our planet is changing.  Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, melting glaciers. The causes for climate change, which itself was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century, came into light in the 1970s and 80s when scientists started to link greenhouse gas emissions to increasing temperatures on the planet. By 1988 the vast majority of experts on the subject agreed that as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increased, temperatures would be around one to two degrees Celsius higher in the late 21st century.

White, conservative men and the denial of climate change

Today we know that human activity is the main cause of climate change. And it is clear that we must drastically change our behavior to prevent worse. Today, with 40 years of scientific evidence and ever-increasing CO2 emissions, there are still so many who don’t know about climate change – and many who deny it. In a YouGov survey conducted in 28 countries with more than 32,000 respondents, up to 16 percent of participants per country answered that they either deny climate change or human responsibility for it.

Human perceptions on climate and the environment have shown to be closely related to demographic factors and political views. Gender, age and race influence our concern for climate as well as our heritage and the party we vote for. Interestingly, one demographic group has shown to be especially skeptical of believing in climate change: White, conservative men.

Cross-nationally, conservative parties and politicians tend to be less supportive of environment protection measures, with some even denying climate change per se. There is a clear tendency for men to vote for conservative parties more so than women.

Furthermore, women have shown less difficulty to change their mind on climate change even at an older age. Age seems to have a major influence on an individual’s climate perceptions: As people become older, world views and political opinions consolidate. There is a tendency to hold on to already formed opinions and men in particular become more resistant towards learning about climate change at higher ages.

So, are men in general not as concerned about the climate as women? What can we do to get everybody on board?

The effects of integrational learning on parents’ environmental perception

New research might have found a very interesting solution for this problem: Child to parent integrational learning. Teaching children about environmental protection turns out to have a very successful spillover effect on their family, leading to greater concern about climate change on the part of their parents and their immediate environment.

With this kind of learning we not only have an instrument to sensitize future generations from childhood on, but we can reach especially those demographic groups that find it difficult to change their opinion about the climate. Children understand and learn to be concerned about climate change much more easily because they have not yet decided on their political stance and ideologies. And they have the power to make their parents aware of it too: This spillover learning shows best results with conservative men – and is even more effective when these men are influenced by their daughters.

Results from our own behavioral study: Children and environmentalism

TryBe has launched its own spillover learning study, which examines the behavior of 780 adolescents participating in our environmental education program in primary and secondary schools in Jinja and Buikwe District, Uganda. Our results show similar patterns:

When children received money to donate to either garbage bins or recycling machines for their school, with the free decision to donate or keep the money, the girls showed a more environmentally conscious behavior and a higher willingness to donate than the boys before and after completing the education program. We could observe that children with higher social capital and a more profound knowledge about the environment were more aware of the dangers of climate change for themselves. Knowledge is also closely related to the responsibility the participants felt for environmental pollution. The participants’ willingness to protect the environment, e.g. to collect rubbish or to inform others about how to do so, was in stark contrast to the control group.

The willingness to act is an important prerequisite for successful spillover effects on parents or the immediate environment. We are currently investigating the environmental awareness of parents and are finding results that are very closely related to previous scientific findings about spillover learning. Parents whose children have participated in our teaching program have been shown to know more about the environment than parents whose children have not participated.

In general, the impact of the educational program on children’s beliefs and behavior was astonishing: Both girls and boys became much more aware of the importance of nature conservation and their concern for the environment and willingness to donate increased significantly. This outcome makes clear how important it is to start with environmental education as soon as possible in order to positively influence children, and especially boys.

We also conducted a survey with manipulated information on surveys to see how collectivism affects children’s willingness to act: by telling the participants beforehand that the average amount of donations was three times higher than it actually was, we were able to achieve a similar willingness to pay between the control group and the treatment group. Even if these participants did not have equal knowledge about environmental protection and did not show a higher willingness to act in an environmentally friendly way, they were strongly influenced by the impression that people generally donated more.

This means that by getting leading figures in collectivistic societies to promote climate action we will most probably give many people reason to change their behavior.

Education might most probably be a valuable tool to reach everybody in our society, and particularly men with environmental topics. In the upcoming weeks TryBe and Unsaid will find more answers around environment and gender – we will get to know more on ecofeminism and the role of men in environmentalism. Stay tuned for this exciting cooperation!