Enough of the Doom and Gloom: Amidst Declining Environmental Concern, Real Leadership is Needed to Re-Engage the Public

How did we lose the room? This is the question facing the sustainability community as GlobeScan’s latest Radar data shows a decline in how serious the global public considers environmental issues to be. With ample scientific evidence to the contrary (see the latest IPCC report), how do we explain the decreasing public concern in environmental issues? And, on World Environment Day 2014, what does this mean for organisations trying to make headway on sustainability?
GlobeScan’s recent Radar public opinion survey asked people across 22 countries about the seriousness of a number of environmental issues including water pollution, resource depletion, air pollution, water shortages, biodiversity and climate change. We created the GlobeScan Environmental Perception Index to track views of these issues in the aggregate (see chart above). While there has been significant volatility in public perception across the 10 countries tracked, the proportion of respondents in 2014 citing these environmental issues as “very serious” is at its lowest level since we began asking this question in 1998.
One possible explanation for the decline in environmental concern is that many of the issues remain intangible or out of sight for the general public. For many people, tangible consequences have still yet to materialize. Climate change and depletion of natural resources are long term issues that often don’t affect people on a day-to-day basis. This short sightedness in turn produces a tendency for people to inappropriately discount the effect of their current behavior on future outcomes, a cognitive bias coined by behavioural economists as “future discounting”. In a nutshell, negative discussion about looming environmental issues has turned off the public.
It is important to note that where problems are more visible and more real to people, such as increasing air pollution in China, we do see pockets of rising concern (from 50% “very serious” in 2013, to 57% in 2014).
The results also show that there was a relative spike in overall concern in 2013. While high profile events such as Hurricane Sandy and high profile attention by the likes of Barack Obama could go some way to explaining a brief peak, it also highlights how variable public opinion on these topics is.
So what does this declining and fluctuating concern mean for business and organisations trying to navigate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world?
The challenge for business, particularly companies seeking recognised leadership, is to better engage the public around sustainability and make it both relevant and desirable. Companies gaining traction include Coca Cola with its Me, We, World strategy, Unilever’s Project Sunlight, with over 90 million acts of sunlight pledged so far, and Disney’s Be Inspired, making sustainability personal. Natura taps into concern in Brazil around natural resource depletion (87% consider it “very serious” in 2014) with its Ekos range using traditional, natural ingredients and working with local communities to make this both relevant and desirable for its audience. And note Ford and Cadillac, which took contrasting approaches to advertising alternative fuel vehicles, targeting two very different sets of consumers in the process. All of these appeal to an important new consumer segment, the Aspirationals, and nowhere in their discourse is negative messaging about environmental problems.
If sustainability leaders want to regain the room, and re-engage the public in environmental issues, then we need to sell sustainable solutions as relevant, positive and desirable. Doom and gloom has only taken us so far; we need to try a more optimistic and empowering approach.