You’re wearing your pajamas and fuzzy slippers while sitting in your bedroom. You’re also on an important Zoom call and it’s 2 pm in the afternoon.
While this scenario seems perfectly normal now, before the pandemic it would have felt bizarre. Office closures and social distancing guidelines led to widespread and rapid adoption of virtual meeting technology, as well as greater flexibility for in-person attendance. For many people, Covid-19 also changed our politics, relationships, and daily routines.
Our perceptions of reality changed, casting global problems like climate change in a new light. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) conducted a detailed investigation into changes in public support for climate action throughout Covid-19. Surveyors asked, “compared with how you were feeling before the pandemic, how much more or less worried about climate change are you today?” The data revealed an upward trend in support for climate action across all countries. US-specific polls support the same conclusion. In 2021, Yale Climate Communications surveys reported that 55 percent of people in the United States thought that climate change should be a high priority for political leadership. In 2019, their estimates for public support for climate action was below 50 percent. George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communications also observed a “dramatic increase” in public concern about climate change within their US-based survey data in 2021.
Even though public opinion on climate change moved in the right direction during the pandemic, the magnitude of that shift differed greatly from country to country. Generally, the IMF noted that people in “emerging market economies,” like China, had a greater increase in concern about climate change than people in developed economies like the United States.
The IMF first asked people to reflect on the impact of their pandemic experience on their climate concerns and indicate whether they’re now “more worried,” “no difference: was worried,” “no difference: was not worried,” or “less worried.” Approximately, 10 percent more people in the United States either responded “no difference: was not worried” or “less worried” than people in China.
With further questions, the IMF found that 71 percent of Chinese respondents supported a green recovery with associated economic costs, whereas only 37 percent of US respondents supported a green recovery under those conditions. Furthermore, only 14 percent of people in the United States marked the environment as a top two political concern compared to 24 percent of Chinese respondents.
The differences in support for climate policy between China and the United States contradict a separate IMF finding. In describing its findings, the IMF reported a statistically significant positive correlation between pandemic hardships and concern over future climate hardships. Within their survey statistics, however, the IMF also noted that 74 percent of US respondents reported health impacts from Covid-19, while only 14 percent of people in China reported health impacts. While this result may be partially explained by the non-health related hardships experienced by Chinese due to their government’s restrictive “Zero Covid” policies, the contradiction nonetheless suggests that the difference between US and Chinese support for climate policies was significant.
While the International Monetary Fund’s research supports a positive correlation between pandemic hardships and fear of future climate hardships, it also found that people prioritize immediate issues like job loss over long-term issues such as climate change. Among the survey respondents, only 58 percent in the United States were employed, but 92 percent of respondents in China were employed. Although both the United States and China suffered massive job losses due to the pandemic, respondents from the United States in this study were more impacted. This discrepancy in job losses likely contributed to the discrepancy in support for a green recovery between the United States in China within these results.
But job loss and “Zero Covid” policies do not fully account for the differing changes in support for climate policy between Americans and Chinese. More of that answer lies within the differences in political structures between the two countries. While both US and Chinese citizens have polarized political in-groups, those groups are polarized around different topics. The debate lies between Democrats and Republicans in the United States, whereas conflict in China centers around nationalism versus liberalism. According to Gaoming Zhu, proponents of nationalism in China support “national leader image, military training, national interests, and reunification of Taiwan,” while proponents of individualism advocate mainly for “individual rights and freedoms.” While climate change is a controversial political topic in the United States, Chinese citizens do not associate their stances on climate policy with their political identity.
In fact, in a survey of climate perceptions in China, researchers have found that “climate change perceptions are heterogenous across regions and demographic groups.” Because Chinese citizens do not rely on the leaders of their political groups to tell them how they should feel about climate policy, they are able to change their minds on climate policy more easily. In contrast, people in the United States tend to stick to either traditionally Democratic or Republican judgments about climate policy, thus anchoring their attitudes to those of their political leaders.
The pandemic, polarization, and climate change are inextricably linked. Regardless of the complexities of the issue, though, public opinion plays a huge role in political action. So, if you are ever sitting in your pajamas on a Zoom call bored out of your mind, consider using that time to write to your representatives. Tell them how your opinions about climate policy have changed throughout the pandemic and remind them that climate change remains a priority for you.