Perils of Perception: Climate Change

Around the world people say they understand what actions they need to take to combat climate change, but do they really? Our latest Perils of Perception study looks at how the general public around the world perceives environmental action. Here, we give you the most important insights into the gap between what people might do and the (sometimes confusing) scientific truth.

What do we think we know?

Læs artiklen på dansk.

Earth Day | IpsosDespite high concern about climate change, and high confidence that we know what to do in our own lives to combat it, misperceptions are very common. When it comes to the specifics, many people often just don’t know what to do.
In our study, we find that 7 out of 10 understand what action they need to take to play their part in tackling climate change. Confidence is highest in Peru (85%), Colombia (83%), Mexico and Chile (both 82%) and lowest in Japan (40%) and Russia (41%).

Behavioural perceptions

When asked to identify the top three options that would most reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of an individual living in one of the world’s richer markets, people around the world were most likely to choose 

  1. recycling as much as possible (59%)
  2. buying energy from renewable sources (49%) 
  3. replacing a typical car with an electric or hybrid vehicle (41%). 

Behavioral Change | IpsosWhile all of these are ways of reducing personal climate change impact, none are in fact in the top three most effective measures. According to an academic review from 2017, having one fewer child is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions, followed by not having a car at all and avoiding one long-distance flight. 

However, as one of the top three measures to cut carbon emissions,  only 

  • 11% around the world mentioned not having a child 
  • 17% around the world mentioned not having a car
  • 21% mentioned avoiding one long-distance flight.  

This is even behind other much less effective actions such as hang-drying clothes (picked by 26%) or replacing traditional light bulbs with low energy ones (36%).

The research also presented a wider range of actions individuals could personally take in reducing climate change.

The most chosen actions were ‘less packaging’ (52%) and ‘buying fewer or more durable items’ (46%).

However, in the academic study, both actions are ranked outside the top 30 actions to take for reducing personal climate change. Yet, the most effective action on the list, which is refurbishing and renovating housing for efficiency (which ranks 6th out of 30), was only chosen by 35%. However, people in Belgium (61%), Hungary (68%) and the Netherlands (56%) chose this as their number one action. It was also more likely to be chosen in other European markets such as Switzerland (51%), Spain (50%), France (56%), Germany (48%) and Italy (52%). 

Impacts of climate change

Climate change already displaces more people than conflict does, according to impacts of climate change | Ipsosresearch. Globally, however, people underestimate the level of internal displacement caused by climate change. 

  • 43% believe conflict to be the greater cause of internal displacement
  • 32% chose climate and weather-related disasters to be the cause of displacement


In reality, 9.8 million people were displaced due to changes in weather or climate in the first 6 months of 2020, compared with 4.8 million displaced by conflict. 

Only 4% of respondents around the world knew that the last six years has been among the hottest on record.

When asked about the warming we are already experiencing, there is little evidence that the public knows that all last six years were among the hottest on record. When asked how many years since 2015 have been the hottest year on record, most were too unsure to answer. Those who did answer tended to underestimate. While 73% did not know how many years have been the hottest on record, a further 23% said fewer than 6. 

Climate change and diet

Climate change and diet | IpsosAccording to research, going to a plant-based diet makes more of a difference to your carbon footprint than eating local, but the public guess this is the other way around. Almost 6 in 10 people around the world say eating a locally-produced diet, including meat and dairy products, is a better way to reduce an individual’s greenhouse gas emissions while only 20% say eating a vegetarian diet with some imported products is more effective. Only those in India are more likely to choose a vegetarian diet as the more effective option (47%), while those in Hungary (77%), Switzerland (73%) and France (70%) are most likely to choose a local diet as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Public understanding of the relative impact of meat and miles is also low. The public has little idea of the carbon emissions of burgers as an equivalent of driving in a car. 

Almost 86% globally could not make a guess how far a car would need to drive to match the carbon emissions of making one beef burger. 

Of those who tried to answer, the mean answer was 43km. Depending on car efficiency data from the IEA, the true journey length is between 38-119km, putting most answers at the lower end of the range. 

About the study

This study shows the results of a 30-market survey conducted by Ipsos on its Global Advisor online platform. Ipsos interviewed a total of 21,011 adults aged 18-74 in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Israel, Malaysia, South Africa, and Turkey, and 16-74 in 24 other markets between Friday, February 19 and Friday, March 5, 2021

Society