Individual Support toward Environmental Policy: The Role of Trust

Individual Support toward Environmental Policy: The Role of Trust

With Radu Vranceanu

The negative consequences of climate change are a source of concern for both policymakers and the public. To address these legitimate worries, private and public organizations are multiplying actions and legislation in support of preserving the environment, rising awareness and promoting responsible behavior. In a recent research published in Social Indicators Research*, Professors Cristina Davino (Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II), Vincenzo Esposito Vinzi* (ESSEC Department of Information Systems, Decision Sciences and Statistics), Estefania Santacreu-Vasut (ESSEC Department of Economics) and Radu Vranceanu (ESSEC Department of Economics),  study how awareness and trust (may) affect individual attitudes toward support of environmental friendly policies.

In the last decade, the public consensus in both developed and developing countries has moved in favor of recognizing the necessity for humankind to take strong and voluntary action in support of the environment, mainly by opposing the generation of GHGs. Indeed, environmental problems of global and local nature concern citizens in developing and developed countries alike. It is understood that in this field progress can be achieved only at the international level. Yet, disagreements regarding who should be held responsible abound. Indeed high-income countries have produced (and still are) huge amounts of CO2 that accumulated in the atmosphere. Naturally, citizens in emerging economies might feel that they do not have to pay for the environmental disaster caused by a third party.

Regardless of the distribution of the burden of adjustment to climate change, citizens in developed and developing countries may envision different ways to address it. A possible explanation could be institutions functioning differently in developed and developing countries, influencing citizens’ perception regarding their role in the solution of environmental problems. For example, in countries where taxes are already high, citizens may oppose using fiscal policy tools to finance the fight against climate change. Also, citizens’ attitudes whether public or private actors are preferred may depend on their level of trust regarding specific institutions.

The research developed by this team analyzes survey data on perceptions and attitudes as collected by the 5th wave of the World Values Survey (2007-2009)*. It introduces an original Environmental Awareness - Social Capital - Action PLS-PM model (Partial Least Square Path Modelling), that is estimated for the whole set of 35000 individual observations from 42 countries, then separately for the groups of developing and developed countries, and finally for China, Germany, India, and the US.

In brief, this analysis reveals that, beyond the traditional awareness channel, trust in non-profit organizations (governments and NGOs) plays an important role in shaping the favorable attitude toward environmental friendly policies, as measured by their stated agreement to pay higher taxes or give up income to finance environmental policies.

On the contrary, the empirical analysis suggests that people who trust for-profit organizations express a lower support for environmental action, thus suggesting that they may be transferring some of their environmental responsibilities onto companies and away from the public sector and from themselves. Interestingly, this relationship is weaker in developing than in developed countries. Could the reason be the excessive communication campaigns led by companies that keep on emphasizing corporate action in favor of the environment? It is true that if individuals in these countries believe that companies effectively take the lead in the fight against environmentally harmful policies, they might want to reduce their own action. In the future, firms communication efforts may be geared toward presenting private-public partnerships that do not entail the negative unintended effect of reducing individual support.

Last but not least, trust in science and technology may also play an important role in shaping attitudes toward climate change. Individuals may be more or less optimistic regarding the ability of scientific progress to address and solve social challenges, from starvation and poverty to space exploration. In the environmental domain, at least in Europe, technological progress has contributed to continuous reductions in the cost of producing energy from renewable sources. Substantial progress has been made in the domain of green technology, which reduces pollution and energy consumption. Nevertheless, this technological progress has been too slow and investment in green R&D can be sensitive to variations in the cost of fossil fuels. At the individual level, strong enthusiasm about science and technology can, on the one hand, affect negatively pro-environmental behavior. Indeed, people would rely on uncertain future discoveries and therefore dismiss their part of responsibility. But it can also affect positively pro-environmental behavior if scientific evidence regarding the causes and consequences of climate change is taken more seriously. Our analysis suggests that the positive effect prevails both in the developed and in the developing countries.

In December 2015, the 188 governments that gathered in Paris for the Cop21 agreed on the voluntary targets of climate preservation that, if implemented, may prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising by more than 2°C. This agreement was lately tarnished by the unilateral withdrawal of the US government. But success in the fight against climate change depends not only on international cooperation and on government’s leadership (or the lack of it) but also on the acceptability of such policies by the public. Our work suggests that citizens’ favorable attitudes toward different alternatives, and the amount of trust regarding certain institutions, may influence how the international community deals with climate change. This is important because in the fight for environmental protection all levers should be activated.


*Davino, C., Esposito Vinzi, V., Santacreu-Vasut, E. and R. Vranceanu, An Attitude Model of Environmental Action: Evidence from Developing and Developed Countries, Social Indicators Research (2018).
*Also Dean and President of ESSEC Business School.


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