Aware, confused, leaderless: How Irish people feel about climate change now

We want to do the right thing, but need help, the annual B&A Sign of the Times survey shows

Part one of the 2020 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes is published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2020. Today’s findings are on the subject of climate change. Part 2 will appear next week.

Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A) began to consider the format and content of the 2020 Sign of the Times study in January of this year, and signed off on its design in early February. At that stage, we believed that the preceding 12-month period had been a remarkable one.

In Ireland, we were heading into an election that we knew would be won or lost on party policies relating to health, housing, and issues to do with the type of society Ireland had become in recent years. At a European level, 2020 would confirm once and for all the precise nature of Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the EU, with all of the implications that would have for Irish peace and prosperity.

Meanwhile, the climate change agenda had well and truly moved centre stage, with vast tranches of the populace seeking to understand how exactly they should change their behaviour to help reverse its devastating effects on the planet. What a difference a month makes.


Within weeks of finalising our Sign of the Times report, the world had become engulfed by coronavirus, turning our definition of what we thought had been a “remarkable” 12 months entirely on its head.

It is within this context that we consider this year’s B&A research study. In our coverage of the research over the next three weeks, we will attempt to relate the findings of our research to the new world we now find ourselves in, and understand its implications for the remainder of 2020 as the world emerges from the crisis into the “new normal” – whatever that may be.

We begin the series with a special treatment of climate change and what it truly means to the average citizen at both a practical and emotive level. Our first, albeit not especially novel, finding was that the climate agenda has finally become mainstream. The single greatest factor behind this dynamic has been the ubiquitous visual salience of the damage that climate change is wreaking on the environment.


Survey participants reported being constantly bombarded with images of forest fires, melting icecaps and the very real effects of sea pollution on wildlife via news bulletins, online platforms and especially social media.

We would argue that it is this rich palette of imagery, seared into our consciousness, that has been the single most influential driver in mobilising an entire generation to the cause.

The second key insight emerging from the study was the extent to which people are struggling to understand the precise actions that should be taken to address the crisis in a meaningful way, and also how they can be motivated to actually take the steps required of them.

The average individual is bamboozled as to what they should do to help stave off the effects of climate change

With a view to deciphering these types of insights, our research included an ethnographic element, which involved a number of respondents setting themselves sustainability-related challenges. We tracked via a digital app how successful they were in meeting those challenges. Examples of tasks respondents set themselves included everything from cutting out all single-use plastics, to replacing liquid soap with bar soap.

Whatever the exercise people set themselves, the same core messages emerged from the research. Specifically, the average individual is somewhat bamboozled as to what exactly they should be doing to help stave off the effects of climate change, and uncertain whether the seemingly small efforts they do make (eg using a keep cup, recycling and composting) will have any impact at a global level.

In fact, people are not even sure if the efforts they are making are being executed correctly. For example, consigning soft plastics to the green bin for recycling, only to be told months later that they should not have been doing so. Our participants reported that they find it nigh-on impossible to motivate themselves to “do the right thing” in such circumstances.

Sense of guilt

A by-product of this dynamic is that many feel an underlying sense of guilt that they are not doing more to help the cause, and revert to a range of coping mechanisms to manage this cognitive dissonance. For example, deflecting from our own lack of action by focusing on the hypocrisy of others (“my friend goes on about how she’s cut out all plastics, but she still takes four flights a year...”).

It is broadly agreed that leaders in this regard must be well known and instantly recognisable

The third core theme emerging from the research was that of a perceived lack of leadership to help guide us through the journey from environmental crisis to a lasting solution.

Thus far it is felt that the discourse has been all about what the individual can do to make a difference, while big business practice and the policies of some governments are, if anything, negating the efforts of consumers.

It is broadly agreed that leaders in this regard must be well known and instantly recognisable, and have well-established credentials in terms of their own sustainable behaviour. For many people, this eliminates celebrities (too hypocritical), academics (not interesting or sufficiently solution-focused), and politicians (too self-interested, and lacking true passion on the issue).

A majority of participants in B&A's research identified David Attenborough as possessing all of the characteristics required of a leader in this area – ie a beloved and treasured figure, with no hidden agenda, an undeniable love for the planet, and someone who can bring the issues to light in a cogent and impactful manner.

Finally, one of the greatest challenges identified by our research participants was how to identify what actions they can take to make a real difference to the environment, and how to overcome the often subconscious barriers to implementing these actions.

One thing we have learned over these past weeks is that behaviours we previously thought would be very difficult to adopt can in fact be incorporated into our behavioural patterns when the benefits for doing so – in this case life or death – become clear.

The fact that they could make radical behavioural changes to help defeat Covid-19 may well provide many with the confidence required to do the same to help save the planet.

Ian McShane is executive chairman of Behaviour & Attitudes