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  • Davin Hutchins

What do people REALLY want to do about climate and sustainability? Audience research at scale

Have you ever wondered what citizens across the globe think are the most significant environmental and climate threats facing humankind? How about who is most influential in getting people to change their minds about the state of the planet? What sustainable habits have people already adopted, and what are they willing to do? Do people think climate protests are really that effective?


I had the unique opportunity to begin answering some of these questions this year as I was selected to lead Greenpeace's massive Global Audience Survey.


The Global Audience Survey began back in 2011 when Greenpeace partnered with a firm called Motivaction to begin asking questions about the environmental priorities of respondents across many countries. Those early questions asked for data on climate change, energy, politics, consumption, oceans, and forests. Every few years, the size and scope of the survey got more ambitious. In 2018, Greenpeace partnered with a Dutch-firm called Glocalities, which helped us reach out to 21 countries - 1,000 respondents in each.


In 2020, our mission was a bit different. First, we wanted to gather data from at least 1,000 respondents, if possible, in every country where Greenpeace has an affiliate office. That's 45 countries and territories and nearly 30,000 individuals.


Second, it was a year where environmental and political faultlines were playing out in dramatic ways. Not only was humanity continuing to witness the face of the climate crisis in historic forest fires, floods, and heatwaves, but we also had a global pandemic, racial justice protests, and the erosion of democracy to consider.


Third, Greenpeace was evolving its strategy to focus on priority battleground countries and identify the most urgent environmental issues as we can't campaign on them all. We've also been launching lots of innovative campaigns in the last years on the future of mobility, sustainable diets, city redesign, and more. This research needed to capture the mindsets and behavior changes that are shifting rapidly with new cultural norms and sustainable technologies like electric vehicles and e-mobility.


When my teammates Soenke and Amandeep sat down to plan the project, we immediately acknowledged that the questions from 2018 didn't really speak to these dynamics. We spent a few weeks re-drafting and tweaking about three dozen questions so that they had some shared DNA with the 2018 questions but revised them, so they were urgent and timebound to reflect Greenpeace's rising ambition.


Glocalities also has their own segmentation of audiences based on their social axis and risk-taking axis. When drilling down into the data to define audiences we can mobilize, it's helpful to parse people as Creatives, Conservatives, Challengers, Achievers, and Socializers.

After the questions were locked and translated, Glocalities began collecting the data through online polling across 45 countries in October 2020, which took a few weeks. Once Glocalities delivered the raw data, we had the challenge of making sense of it.


Fortunately, Greenpeace has a top-notch Insights (Data Analytics) team and lent us data scientist Helena to take the raw data in SPSS format, clean and pivot it and configure it into a user-friendly dashboard in Tableau. Even after it was cleaned, the data was massive. With respondents' questions configured line by line and exported to Excel, we had about 20 million rows of data, and the file was 30GB. That's a big Excel file!


Once the team went through a few iterations of the dashboard to get the final version, we held a series of webinars for our worldwide staff to explain the global trends and drill down into their respective countries to see the degree of variance at the national level.


Many of the responses confirmed trends I was sensing in the climate and sustainability movement in conversations with friends and allies. Some data was quite surprising.


So what did we discover?


Family and friends are most important in getting people to change their mind on sustainability


Two series of questions suggested that many environmental organizations might miss opportunities to change hearts and minds through family dynamics. When analyzing the demographic information, we noticed that we're still seeing extensive family sizes in places like Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Thailand. Dependents in a family can range from three to five people on average, depending on the country.


Also, people indicated that their shifting opinions on environmental issues are shaped most by family, friends, and work colleagues. These are the people we see most frequently, the people we trust most, and the people we observe regularly. Not only do we share conversations about our experiences and values with these trusted people, but we even note and sometimes mimic decisions on diet, exercise, and sustainable purchasing.


Low on the trust list was for changing minds were politicians, celebrities, and journalists. Environmental organizations spend a lot of time and money trying to reach these influential cast of characters. They might raise awareness but not necessarily behavior change. If we really want people to live differently, we should reach out to them, bring them into the fold, and then ask them to have intergenerational conversations about sustainability. This might be more effective.

On a related note, another question suggested that despite the massive amounts of energy and funding to reach out to audiences on new social media channels for environmental engagement, many of the "hot" channels like Twitter, WhatsApp, and TikTok aren't used that widely. People still tend to get the most environmental information from TV news and online news, and other visual media like YouTube.


People are already living sustainably and have a strong desire to make big leaps forward


The most inspiring answers to our survey came from another series of questions about mindsets and behavior shifting. Globally, nearly 1/3 to 3/4 of people say they are already doing the following: using reusable bags, recycling, eating less meat, flying less, composting, recycling electronics, and reducing home energy and water usage. There is always a danger on surveys where people project their "ideal self" in their responses, so there may be a margin of error.


These responses really made me hopeful. In recent years, Greenpeace and other organizations have been working tirelessly to affect behavior change with campaigns on recycling, sustainable diets, and close-loop, and regionalizing economies. Many people might be already doing what we asked them to do for decades and finally "get it." This is an encouraging sign. About 1/3 of people not doing these things say they plan to.

But even more encouraging, about four out of 10 people say they are ready to take giant leaps like purchasing an electric vehicle/e-bike or invest in clean energy at home soon. 17% already have personal e-mobility vehicles. One potential insight here is we might be underestimating people's willingness to go big and adopt significant lifestyle changes that will drive the adoption of electric mobility and home solar.


Anecdotally, I see it happening. In my neighborhood, there are eight solar homes, including mine. I own a Chevy Volt, and my neighbor just bought a Tesla Model Y. I’ve been trying to buy a ChargePoint Home Flex charging station and they’ve been sold out for months, indicating high demand.

Less protesting and effective policies


We also asked respondents what they think are the most impactful actions we can take in the next ten years. Our highest responses were creating land sanctuaries, regulating products tied to deforestation like beef, soy, and timber, adopting electric mobility en masse, and ending single-use plastics to save our oceans. Joining a climate protest only got a thumbs up from 12% of respondents. This could indicate that many people think protesting, while important in creating cultural momentum, actually isn't that impactful in the long term. Or perhaps, it means we've done a lot of climate protesting in the past few years and haven't seen a lot of real change, like bold policies that can keep us under the 1.5° C threshold to avoid climate catastrophe. Maybe people have climate protest fatigue.

When asked what governments should do, about one out of four said plastic reduction, shifts to renewable energy, nature preserves for forests and oceans, and prosecuting environmental crimes would be the most impactful. Regarding businesses, about one out of three said corporations should reduce their energy usage and shift to 100% renewable energy.


Other encouraging data worth mentioning


As we talked to our campaign, engagement, digital, and management teams about the implications of this data, we felt it was our duty to stress that while this is an extensive data set, it’s only one. It’s essential to cross-reference our own surveys with others to make educated guesses about audiences and how to motivate them.


Here are two recent surveys worth mentioning that contextualize some of the trends we are seeing in our data.


First, we conducted our own COVID survey in 2020 to gauge attitudes about COVID-19 and how it relates to well-being and the natural world. We surveyed early in the crises and then a few months later. There was an increase in worry about future generations (rising from 28% to 36%) more than their own. Climate action for the sake of our children is a significant component of why people join the movement. Confidence in national governments’ ability to learn from environmental and health crises like COVID has decreased.


Initially, 59% were optimistic about the government’s ability to learn and prepare for another crisis like Covid-19. Now it’s 52%. Unfortunately, people believe COVID has nothing to do with environmental issues (45%) rather than attributing it to wildlife trade (21%) or urbanization (18%). COVID is undoubtedly linked to the environment as the pathogens that likely passed from bats to animals in livestock markets result from man cutting into wild areas for food and resources.


But the pandemic might be projecting a silver lining in a shift in attitudes. Our partner Glocalities conducted a separate survey in 2020 with the World Values Survey Foundation to track changes in people’s values and lifestyles due to the pandemic. The survey was conducted in 24 countries. Young adults (18-35) have been most severely hit by the pandemic, showing deteriorating mental health, increasing pessimism, hostility, and worries about the planet, unemployment, and the economy. While there was clearly rising fear and pessimism, there was also rising support for the following as people re-evaluated their priorities:

  • Rising focus on postmaterialism and freedom

  • Declining focus on patriarchy and law and order

  • Rising support for emancipation and equality

  • Rising focus on sharing and community

  • Declining focus on consumerism, hedonism, novelty, and beauty

  • Increased focus on health, vitality, and taking precautions

  • Rising emphasis on inclusive economic growth

See this earlier post for other data projects I conducted that suggests people are realigning their values toward nature and sustainability. Rising optimism and community values in the face of fear and uncertainty is what we need most to prevail in the climate crisis. We should focus on harnessing what we've learned from COVID and not wait for another global pandemic or climate catastrophe to start making the right choices to live in harmony with our only home.