Ariadne Analysis: What people regionally think about climate protection – Knowledge

In order to achieve the climate protection goals, Germany must be rebuilt on a large scale. In concrete terms, it is about wind turbines in front of the window, new cycle paths on the way to work, solar systems, the phase-out of coal, the CO₂ tax or the speed limit. The approval or rejection of comprehensive climate protection measures is crucial for the success of the transformation, also because politicians are strongly oriented towards what they think people are thinking. The so-called electoral will is often an opaque thing, distorted by a wide variety of voices and constantly changing, which is why it is all the more important to take a scientific look at it.

This is exactly what researchers of the Kopernikus projects (energy research projects of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research) have now done. For their analysis based on two panel surveys conducted nationwide in the years 2017 to 2021, they estimated the approval of the population for 26 different climate protection measures at the regional level. Clear geographic and temporal differences became visible. And what the research calls “pluralistic ignorance”: The scientifically proven phenomenonthat communities often have a misconception about how others think or behave.

“Our ongoing analyzes confirm that citizens clearly underestimate the general approval of climate protection measures in the German population,” explains Ingo Wolf from the Research Institute for Sustainability RIFS, one of the authors of the analysis.

There are differences between East and West and between town and country

According to the analysis, the regional differences in approval of climate protection measures are significant, sometimes varying by up to 60 percentage points. Above all, attitudes differ between urban and rural populations. Broadly speaking, city dwellers are more positive about the measures than people in rural circles. There are also differences between East and West Germany: Overall, people in the West are more in favor of climate protection measures than people in the East, which can be attributed primarily to structural differences. For example, while in a coal-distant city like Tübingen, 93 percentage points approve of the coal phase-out, in the former coal city of Cottbus it is only 31.

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However, Ingo Wolf warns against reading the results as a simple East-West or urban-rural conflict: “The regional differentiation shows great heterogeneity. We see, for example, that approval in regions where wind turbines or solar systems have been expanded , is growing disproportionately over time – while public opinion on other measures such as the coal phase-out has become highly polarized over the years, depending on the region.” The questions about what personal, but above all collective consequences the transformation has for the people on site must be considered specifically in each case and cannot be overestimated politically when developing possible solutions.

The analysis also addresses the question of how strongly opinions on climate protection measures are influenced by the social and regional environment. In the case of wind power, for example, the authors show that a positive change of opinion in one district also infects the neighboring districts over time. “Positive spatial diffusion is thus one of the largest, most significant, and most consistent predictors of county-level approval of low-emission technologies,” the text reads.

Basically, the data across all regions shows that the acceptance of measures is growing overall. And also that people prefer subsidies and infrastructure expansion to restrictions and tax increases. In any case, more cycle paths are more popular than the end of combustion engines, and incentives are better accepted than bans.

Most people see the transformation positively, but are critical of the implementation

In conclusion, Ingo Wolf sees three central aspects that can help ensure that measures are accepted locally: They must be recognized as effective in terms of climate protection. They must not be perceived as unfair, so the financial, but also social and immaterial costs must be distributed fairly. And during implementation, civil society commitment must be strengthened and local value added increased through opportunities to have a say and participate. This is the case, for example, with citizen-owned solar parks.

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“Our analyzes show that most people have a fundamentally positive view of the climate-friendly transformation of our energy system, but if you look at the evaluation of the implementation, we find critical observations across the board,” says Wolf. “This affects various aspects, above all excessive costs, slow progress, a lack of proximity to the public and insufficient transparency.”

In order to facilitate the step into practical politics, the researchers have combined their analysis with a online dashboard supplemented, with which one can get an overview of the approval of various climate protection measures in a region. There it can be found out, for example, that approval for a speed limit on motorways in 2021 was highest in Hamburg at 62 percent, and lowest in the Saxon Switzerland-Eastern Ore Mountains district at 41 percent.

This is also explicitly intended as a tool for politicians. “The perceived social norm has a massive influence on how people behave, especially in unsafe situations. Since these perceptions are influenced by all kinds of mental distortions, scientific data is so important here,” explains Ingo Wolf. “The position of a small but loud minority is quickly perceived as the majority opinion and has much more influence than is actually appropriate. On private individuals, but also on political decision-makers,” says the psychologist.

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