Attitudes towards Climate Change and the Willingness to Take Action

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

80 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. An Introduction to the Topic Climate Crisis

2. Theory and Assumptions
2.1. Definition of the Climate Crisis
2.2. Theoretical Assumptions about the Climate Crisis and individual Behaviour
2.2.1. Knowledge and the Perception of the Climate Crisis
2.2.2. Urgency and Feelings of Responsibility
2.2.3. Feelings of Responsibility, Effectiveness and Willingness to take Action
2.3. The Role of Political Science Students

3. Research Design
3.1. Qualitative Method of Investigation
3.1.1. Data Collection through Interviews, The Survey Instrument: Guided Interviews Problem-Focused Interview
3.1.2. Operationalization
3.2. Practical Research Details
3.2.1. Access to Case Selection
3.2.2. Aspects of the Survey Situation
3.2.3. Data Analysis / Coding

4. Analysis
4.1. Knowledge and Perception of Importance
4.2. Feelings of Responsibility towards Climate Crisis
4.3. Perception of Effectivity and Willingness to take Action
4.4. Perceived Problems with Climate Crisis

5. Interpretation

6. Conclusion and Reflection

Biblio graphy

Appendix I - Start of Contact
Appendix II - Guideline Interview (German Version)
Appendix III- Codebook (English Version)
Appendix IV- Codebook with Operationalization (English Version)
Appendix V - Interviews (German Version)


This research paper deals with the current issue of the global climate crisis and the personal responsibility to act against it. Theoretically, it is based on the combination of the paradox of voting and the collective action problem, which are adapted to the topic of the climate crisis. Within the seminar paper, four assumptions about knowledge, the perception of urgency, responsibility and the willingness to take action are developed, which ought to solve the assumed free-rider-problem within the climate crisis. Background for the discussion delivers a qualitative content analysis based on Mayring (2015) and Kuckartz (2016). Five qualitative interviews with master students of political science of the University of Bamberg were conducted with the help of an open guideline. The interviews were coded through the computer- aided program MAXQDA. The extensive analysis of the interviews and the interpretation revealed that three out of four formulated assumptions can be accepted. All in all, this seminar paper concludes that the higher the urgency of the climate crisis, the resulting personal responsibility and the individual effectiveness of actions are perceived subjectively, the more willing people are to take individual action.

1. An introduction to the Topic Climate Crisis

„Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014). Nowadays, the socio-political significance of the manmade climate crisis cannot be denied rationally anymore. Especially during the last decades, the saliency of the climate crisis as a global threat has grown tremendously and polarizes societies all around the world (Fragnière 2016). It partly dominated and continues to dictate media coverage and the public discourse in the political field (Olausson 2009). Correspondingly, the issue of climate change plays an increasingly major role in international institutions and national governments, as in the case of Germany. It is a topic which tangents every human being, because it can have dramatic consequences for everyone's future. Therefore, the individual responsibility to act against this development might perform a decisive part during the solution process of the climate crisis. This is also why extensive research needs to be conducted in this field, which targets the very bottom of subjective human decision making. Until now, a clear research gap can be identified in this area, because systematic studies about this topic are lacking. Qualitative interviews with political science students might uncover hidden steps of the formation of opinions on the climate crisis. On grounds of this socio-ecologic urgency and political significance of that topic, the research question of my term paper will be formulated as follows: “How do master students of political science perceive the climate crises and are they willing to take action against it?” It is crucial to understand this attitude formation process to identify potential policy implications, which can help illuminating people, who still deny manmade climate change and do not accept to alter their behaviour. This is the main goal of this research paper.

This research paper maintains the following structure. At first, a definition of climate crisis is provided and the key problem with the climate crisis is presented. Thereupon, four assumptions are formulated as solutions to the adapted paradox of voting and the free-rider-problem of collective action theory. Within the research design, the method of qualitative guided interviews with political science students in their master's degree is justified and the operationalization of the concepts is explained. In addition, important practical research details are noted and the data is analysed and coded with the computer-aided software MAXQDA. After that the content data is analysed thoroughly and is interpreted regarding to the formulated assumptions. At the end within the conclusion, the main results of this term paper are summarized, a hypothesis is generated and further implications are discussed.

2. Theory and Assumptions

In this paragraph, the term climate crisis is defined, further concepts are reviewed and put into theoretical interconnection with each other. Thereby, four relating working assumptions are formulated in three subchapters and summarized within a theoretical model.

2.1. Definition of the Concept Climate Crisis

At first, it is crucial to determine a clear definition of the main concept of this research paper. The main term climate crisis can be defined as a political catchphrase, which describes the ecological, political and social crisis regarding the manmade global warming. The recent development of public discourse shows that climate crisis is increasingly used instead of the more harmless sounding term climate change with the purpose to clarify the scope of the global warming (Carrington 2019). Moreover, the use of the expression of a changing climate usually only suggests a slow and linear process, which depolitizes the term (Meyer-Ohlendorf 2014). In contrast to that, studies have shown that the notion of the word climate crisis does invoke a strong emotional response in conveying a sense of urgency (cf. Yoder 2019). This is also the reason why even environmental scientists like Meyer-Ohlendorf plead to rather use the more precise notion of the expression climate crisis. Hence, it is adapted as a main concept during this seminar paper as well.

2.2. Theoretical Assumptions about the Climate Crisis and individual Behaviour

In this paragraph the issues of the paradox of voting at the individual level and the collective action problem at the aggregate level are combined, transferred to the subject of the climate crisis and used as a theoretical basis for this seminar paper. Nevertheless, at first, it needs to be emphasized that, in an epistemological perspective, the nature of individual behaviour cannot be observed objectively. An observer cannot be objective, because they live in an individual social world and are effected by individual social constructions of reality. In this sense, a double hermeneutic approach underlines the generated theory, which means that the world is interpreted by the actors (one hermeneutic level) and their interpretation is interpreted by the observer (second hermeneutic level) (cf. Marsh & Furlong, p. 17). Additionally, this research paper follows the perspective that we can establish relationships between social phenomena, but it is assumed that there are some relations which exist, but are not directly observable. So, this seminar paper does not claim to uncover a complete objective reality.

Acting against climate change is oftentimes compared with the paradox of voting, which implicates that the meaning of one single vote is marginally low (Downs 1957). Within Downs' theory, which is based on rational choice logic, he suggests that voting, the fundamental political act, is irrational, because its costs are higher than its benefits, which results in a negative utility. Following this approach, some people maintain the opinion that their acting is connected with higher costs and less benefits, which is why they remain inactive. Moreover, mathematically, they also follow the perception, as it is the case with voting, that their own behaviour does not have a significant impact on stopping global warming.

In addition to that, there exist four main reasons according to Fragnière (2016), why people might think that their behaviour is causally irrelevant:

“(1) my emissions are too small to be significant;
(2) due to climatic thresholds, my emissions cause no marginal harm;
(3) there is no direct causal pathway between particular emissions and climate-related harms; and
(4) the same amount of greenhouse gas will be emitted anyway” (Fragnière 2016).

As a result, on the aggregate level, in a scenario, in which people refrain from acting on grounds of this irrationality, a clear large-scale intergenerational collective action problem (cf. Olson 1965) to act against climate change can be identified (Fragnière 2016). The term collective action problem refers to a situation in which all individuals would be better off cooperating but fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals that discourage joint behaviour. Such social dilemmas can be documented especially when the topic involves public goods. The characterization of the public good is that it is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous (Olson 1965). Transferring this definition to the subject of the climate crisis, a moderate climate development and a healthy living environment are regarded as public goods. Thus, the majority of the world's population are free-riders in the sense of acting against this global social dilemma. This is also why lines of responsibility in order to act against the climate crisis seem to be quite blurred and cannot be attached directly to individuals.

However, even Downs (1957) recognizes within the paradox of voting that people nevertheless go to the polls, even though it seems to be irrational. . One reason for this is the feeling of one's individual civic duty to act as a good citizen (cf. Riker & Ordeshook 1968). In this seminar paper I adapt this logic, by stating that people actively contribute to the solution of the climate crisis, although they know that their impact is rather low as one single person. In addition, there are some potential solutions, which can remedy the collective action problem. These contain privatization, community self-organization and government regulation (Olson 1965). In the following paragraphs, theoretical assumptions like knowledge, the perceived urgency, effectiveness of actions and feelings of responsibility towards the climate crisis are showed with the purpose to explain, why people might possess that seemingly striking motivation to act as solutions to the irrationality of action and the free-rider-problem.

2.2.1. Knowledge and the Perception of the Climate Crisis

At first, one assumed way to remedy this phenomenon is the consumption of political news, which deals with climate change and its consequences. When people are exposed to such media reports more often, they continuously gain more political knowledge about the problems and implications of climate change. Here, the term political knowledge refers to one's objective political knowledge about the topic of the climate crisis, which can conceptually be defined as the quantitative extent of knowledge about political facts saved in one's long-term memory (Carpini & Keeter 1996). Persons, who know more about that topic, are more interested in it and own an increased sense of curiosity towards this subject (van Deth 2000). Thereby, an individual pays more attention to that political issue (Zaller 1992) and confronts it more consciously (Ichilov 2004). A rational individual could no longer deny the climate crisis and starts to grasp its whole scope. In addition, individuals, who maintain an extensive political information process, are more likely to be involved in political discussions (Eveland 2004). Since climate change continues to be a salient topic, people talk about this issue and learn even more about it while participating in conversations. During the interaction with other people in their social environment, people notice that they are not alone in their perception and their evaluation of it as an important topic even continues to grow. Through higher political knowledge and regular discussions concerning climate change, a person's political awareness for this current issue of manmade climate change rises and the individual realizes its socio­political and ecological relevance more clearly. Since knowledge influences one's perception of this issue, the following assumption needs to be adapted for this seminar paper: “Knowledge about the climate crisis is a condition for evaluating it as an important topic”.

2.2.2. Urgency and Feelings of Responsibility

Important for this seminar paper is to differentiate between the concepts of importance and urgency. The term urgency implies a much stronger perception of the climate crisis and means “the feeling or belief that something needs to be dealt with immediately” (Oxford Dictionary). Since this conceptual distinction, a deeper connectivity between these two terms needs to be defined. In this case it is suggested that an accepted importance has a strengthening effect on one's evaluation of the climate crisis, which in the end results into an urgent perception. Therefore, the second assumption is stated as follows: “Evaluating the climate crisis as an important topic leads to perceiving it as urgent”.

If the perception of the climate crisis being important is enlarged to an urgent evaluation, it is assumed that a higher degree of a personal responsibility is realized. This is the case because the feeling that it has to be dealt with immediately triggers the individual to be aware of one's personal duty as a good citizen, as it is the case with voting, which the individual aspires to fulfil. Conceptually, when it is referred to the term responsibility to the climate crisis it is defined by “the duty to reduce one's carbon footprint and the duty to promote and support collective action against climate change” (Fragnière 2016). Moreover, the increased perceived pressure also lowers the collective action problem, because with a higher perceived urgency, people gain an additional strong incentive to act. Hence, the third assumption is based on the evaluation of the climate crisis as an urgent topic, which is expected to increase the perceived individual responsibility towards it: “If the climate crisis is evaluated as an urgent topic, a higher level of individual responsibility is gained”.

2.2.3. Feelings of Responsibility, Effectiveness and Willingness to take Action

The next assumption deals with the connection between the perceived personal responsibility and the step of becoming active. In this theory it is not expected that the feeling of individual responsibility automatically translates into a strong willingness to take action. Rather this relationship is mediated by the self-evaluated effectiveness of one's own individual opportunities to take action and to alter one's everyday life. Here, the term effectiveness is defined by the more general concept of political efficacy, which consists of two dimensions. The first dimension of internal political efficacy relates to the personal assessment of the individual capabilities and opportunities to exert influence and is considered in political science as a psychological condition for political participation (Vetter 1997). The second dimension of external political efficacy measures the individual perception to what extent political actors or the political system do react to such influence attempts (Vetter 1997). In the course of this seminar paper, the term effectiveness covers both dimensions of the more general concept of political efficacy. As a consequence, effectiveness is regarded as a psychological condition for taking action in the context of the climate crisis as well, which is why it is seen as a mediating factor.

Concerning the assumed theoretical relationship, this leaves the possibility that high feelings of personal responsibility do not lead to active behaviour, because the individual means to take action are regarded as ineffective. Therefore, responsibility alone does not cause individual action taking in a direct manner. It only serves as a working attitude fundament, which can trigger active behaviour, only if the individual evaluates its means to influence the climate crisis through an individual contribution as effective. Following this approach, the paradox of acting can be solved by evaluating one's opportunities as effective within the context of a strong individual responsibility. The fourth assumption covers this mediated relationship: “In order to take individual action, people need to feel high levels of individual responsibility towards the climate crisis and perceive their individual means as effective.”

All in all, the theoretical assumptions are summarized in the visualization of Figure 1. These concepts and their related assumptions are theorized to work in the following causal connection.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Causal Chain - Source: Own illustration.

Higher levels of political knowledge about the topic of the climate crisis are supposed to lead to describe it as an important topic, which is assumed to be associated with a certain urgency, which then generates a special feeling of responsibility within the human being. This concept is connected to a stronger willingness to take individual action by an intervening mediation through the perceived effectiveness of individual options.

2.3. The Role of Political Science Students

The individuals within the formulated theory are not to be expected as ordinary people, but they are all required to possess a high degree of education. In general, higher education allows people to better understand complex issues more deeply (Vetter 1996). Through that it allows to assume higher cognitive skills and a rather rational thinking and behaviour. Irrational perceptions, like for instance denying the manmade climate crisis, are excluded from the analysis in this way. Additionally, they are expected to be able to follow the interview questions without major problems and to give reasonable answers to the quite demanding topic.

By assuming the individuals to be politically interested as a second theoretical requirement, it can be guaranteed that they are more politically involved and maintain an extensive and regular media consumption. Hence, they are expected to be quite educated about the salient topic of the climate crisis in many of its global effects and ecological consequences.

For the formulated theoretical assumptions to work as expected, it is necessary that these two requirements of education and political interest are fulfilled. Therefore, the case selection contains political science students in their master's degree, because they combine the aspect of a high level of education and an intense general interest in politics and public discourse. Since this special status, they are viewed as ideal respondents for analysing that demanding research topic.

3. Research Design

In order to be able to analyse the content dimension appropriately in its fully variety and volume, the survey method of qualitative content analysis is used. The analysing process is adapted to the well-established guidelines by Mayring (2015) and Kuckartz (2016) during the whole seminar paper. This research method will be presented and justified in this chapter.

3.1. Qualitative Method of Investigation

Generally, qualitative research takes into account the exploration of individual cases, which exists under a methodological openness (Strübing 2014, p. 528). In general, the classical procedure of a qualitative analysis follows the structure of finding a suitable research question, which only can be captured by the qualitative method, the definition of terms and categories and an analytical instrument (Mayring 2015, p.21). The approach of a content analysis has specific characteristics. According to Mayring (2015) the criteria of a content analysis consist of a fixed communication level, a systematic, rule-guided and a theory-based approach which allows conclusions to be drawn of the communication level. In this term paper it will be the data collection by means of qualitative interviews. Accordingly, the results are related to the question and interpreted (Mayring 2015, p.21).

3.1.1. Data Collection through Interviews

Non-standardised interviews, including the guideline interview, are among the qualitative survey methods of qualitative research (Gläser & Laudel 2006, p. 39). Hence, interviews belong to the reconstructive research methods and can be linked to case-based explanatory strategies (Gläser & Laudel 2006, p. 34). Consequently, the interview maintains a text-based structure, counts as a widespread, differentiated and methodologically elaborated method (Helfferich 2019, p. 669). For this seminar paper the method of a guided qualitative interview is used, because this approach provides various opportunities to address the seminar paper's controversial topic. It allows respondents to express themselves openly and clearly in their opinions in a space as large as possible. This method is perceived to suit the formulated research question best with the purpose of answering it adequately by illustrating a diverse range of perspectives and opinions. The research question is posed in such a way that it demands the opinion level. The Survey Instrument: Guided Interviews

In general, guided interviews lead the interview through a previously developed guideline (Helfferich 2019, p. 669). Typically, they are designed as a semi-structured survey instrument, through which the structure is set up by the research director and represents a control and structural function (Misoch 2015, p. 65). Furthermore, Misoch clarifies that the guidelines are schematized and fulfil the following characteristics: “thematic framing and focusing, listing of all relevant thematic complexes [...], better comparability of data through thematic framing and structuring of the entire communication process" (Misoch 2015, p. 66).

In addition, Reinders (2005) determines three basic principles which constitute this scheme. According to him, openness, processualism and communication must be taken into account during the implementation process. The term openness means that the guidelines should be designed flexible to enable the interviewer to report on experiences, actions and attitudes. In the case of processualism, it is important that meaning attributions are made possible so that relevant topics can be considered. This can be promoted, for example, through questions about the past. The type of communication should be adapted to the interviewer. This is to ensure the shortest possible distance to the opposite party. Problem-Focused Interview

The problem-focused interview according to Witzel (2000) is a form of guideline interview and pursues the goal of discussing problems and investigating the subjective views and constructions of meaning of the interviewees. The problem-centred interview is intended to combine and present an inductive and a deductive approach (Misoch 2015, p. 71). Additionally, three basic principles are observed within the problem-centred interview, which are: “problem centring, object centring and process orientation" (Witzel 2000). The interviews carried out are also problem-centred interviews, which were based on those three basic principles. Subtopics were further developed within the questions in interaction with the interviewees leading to different answers possible. The problem-centred interview was chosen to discuss certain issues which were likely to come up during the course of the interviews when talking about the sensitive and personal topic of the climate crisis. The word problem should not have a negative connotation but rather be a topic for a discussion. Since the three theoretical concepts are based on opinions and feelings, it is easier to discuss these concepts. Therefore, the guide was conceptualized as a problem-centred interview.

The interview guide was formulated in German (Appendix II). The interviews were conducted in German. For an improved reading comprehension, the individual text segments have been translated into English. The full German version can be found in the Appendix V.

3.1.2. Operationalization

The operationalization is intended to define the measuring instruments, which are intended to measure the topics of the interview content. For this purpose, the generic terms of the theory regarding the perceptions about the climate crisis, the evaluation of the effectiveness of individual and collective action, the willingness to take action and the responsibility to climate crisis are written as codes. In order to relate the theory to the interviews, further subcategories were designed, which specify further aspects more thoroughly with the end to grasp the whole variety and the scope of the answers. These subcategories refer to the importance and the urgency of the climate crisis and its solution. Moreover, they describe reasons and fields of individual action and inaction and differentiate between the three different responsibility-levels of collective, state and global responsibility. The whole codebook can be viewed in appendix IV.

3.2. Practical Research Details

3.2.1. Access to Case Selection

Political science students in the second semester of their Master's degree of the Otto-Friedrich- University Bamberg were interviewed. Care was taken to ensure that the students did not completed their Bachelor's degree at the Otto-Friedrich-University. This was due to the different focuses and teaching methods at Germany's universities. No primary attention was paid to the position of the universities. The aim should be to obtain a spectrum of opinions that was as diverse as possible and was not distorted by the methodologies of a university. The reason for the selection of second semester Master's students was that the Bachelor's degree had not been long ago and the students were still in the middle of their university curriculum and it was granted that they all reached a high degree of education. The requests were gender-neutral, two female and three male students agreed to the interview. In the absence of an oral or written record, an exemplary memorandum of understanding is available in Appendix I, which had been drawn up immediately after the request.

3.2.2. Aspects of the Survey Situation

All interviews represent the individual level and were carried out within a narrow time frame (30.05.20 to 16.06.20). Five interviewees were contacted: S (interview 1), T (interview 2), C (interview 3), F (anonymized identity - interview 4), D (interview 5). Due to the Covid-19 crisis, all interviews were conducted via the Skype software with the option of a video-chat. All respondents decided to be interviewed in their own home. Four out of the five interviews have a duration of about 35 minutes, except of the first one, which almost even went about an hour. The respondents were contacted via WhatsApp communication application. This number of interviews, and its documented content, is perceived as suitable to answer the research question appropriately. At the beginning of the interview, the concept of the climate crisis was defined to the respondents for a more detailed understanding of the interview topic.

3.2.3. Data Analysis / Coding

The transcription of the interviews was done according to the transcription rules of Kuckartz (2016). The computer-supported program for qualitative interviews “MAXQDA 2020" was used for the evaluation of the text data and in the processing. Moreover, it was adapted to the specifications of the Qualitative Content Analysis according to Mayring (2015) and Kuckartz (2016). As the next step, the transcribed interviews were transformed into the computer program “MAXQDA 2020" for computer-assisted evaluation of the data. With the help of the program, categories were developed inductively and lately also deductive to create a comparison between the theory and the interviews. The codebook with the operationalization can be found in Appendix IV. The aim was to limit the interviews to the essential in order to connect them better with theory and to establish comparability.

4. Analysis

In this part of the paper the descriptive analysis is illustrated. To this end, the data will be described by illustrating anchor examples and text segments in four subchapters. These chapters are structured according to the theoretical construct of the second chapter and the reference categories of the codebook.

4.1. Knowledge and Perception of Importance

Concerning the knowledge degree, it is important to note that through this way of investigating on one's objective political knowledge about the climate crisis it is relied on the subjective assessment of one's knowledge level. Concerning this matter the respondents give rather ambivalent answers. On the one hand, they all claim that they know about the climate crisis and its consequences in general, but on the other hand, the freely admit that it is not their special field of interest (cf. S 440). Besides this knowledge self-assessment, some statements were collected during the interviews, which doubt the overall solution of the climate crisis (cf. D 118-121). Concerning the origin of the climate crisis, all respondents independently agreed on the opinion that there exists a natural climate development, which is highly influenced and accelerated by mankind (cf. T 50).

The evaluation of the climate crisis being an important topic already becomes evident when looking at the naming of the most relevant themes at the moment. Except of one, all respondents mentioned the climate crisis as one of the most important current topics for society. The climate crisis is attributed to be a serious challenge, with global effects on all states with short- and long-term impacts (F 48-50). Moreover, it is described as dealing with questions concerning the existence of mankind, justice, species protection and the persistence of civilization (C 41-44).

Nevertheless, the depiction of the climate crisis as an urgent topic is not that uniform. Some respondents clearly recognize a high priority of this issue, while others deny it. Thus, there seems to be a quite strong contrast between the interviewees in this regard. A few respondents do not consider it as their personal main topic, which is in their mind permanently (D 69-70). Nevertheless, a fundamental comprehension of the urgency of the situation seems to exist at the same time (D 71-72). Statements, which do not describe it as that urgent, are reasoned as follows:

“I do not believe that it will have an influence on me, on the one hand because of my age and on the other hand because of the geographical location“ (C 95-97).

Despite some critical voices about the urgency of the topic, respondents mostly grasp the scope of the situation and the need to take immediate action with the purpose to improve the generated consequences:

“I really do consider it as very urgent, that something needs to happen to increase the probability to sustain our habitat” (S 192-193).

The climate crisis is connected with dramatic global effects, which became stronger in the people's minds through public discourse (D 86-87). This perception leads a respondent to the answer that human's way of life needs to change inevitably, if people do not want to change it radically themselves (D 279-280). Two respondents really stand out with their statements. They see a high need for action and acknowledge that all people are in this together (S 161-162). The more knowledge one gains about this topic, the more the feeling prevails that through this social pressure an incentive is provided to change one's own behavioural patterns (T 229-232). One respondent even states immediately that she ranks the survival of the planet over her individual freedom. She prefers that flora and fauna and future generations as well survive in the long run than insisting on having the possibility of domestic flights. For her such restrictions are luxury problems (T 295-298).

4.2. Feelings of Responsibility towards the Climate Crisis

Starting with feelings of responsibility at the individual level, the respondents again differ in their attitudes. There are some students, who feel a great personal responsibility and others who did not feel that targeted by it. Within the interviews, there can be crystalized varying approaches regarding the personal responsibility to the climate crisis:

F for example only feels a greater individual responsibility in areas, where he perceives himself as completely free in his decision (F 229-235). With this statement he refers to the person's context and the existing opportunities differences (e.g. transportation, consumption) between the countryside and in the city. Another respondent shares a different opinion on personal responsibility to the climate crisis: T maintains the attitude that she especially feels responsible at areas, where she regards it as easy to act. This provides her with higher incentives and social pressure to alter her everyday life (T 265-266). The fields of individual responsibility, which were named the most during the interviews, were the kind of transportation, food and clothing consumption and cases which were regarded as luxury goods (T 260-262). An even larger personal responsibility is revealed within S's answers. She feels extremely individually responsible during her everyday life, because she regards the climate crisis to be very tightly connected with individualism (S 353-356). For her the climate question is something, which determines the existence of every citizen:

“We are responsible (for the climate crisis), so we need to solve it through our own responsibility” (S 411-412).

In contrast to this very strong personal engagement, many answers are collected, which negate individual responsibility (cf. D 232-234). Moreover, F only feels personally responsible, when he recognizes an opportunity to modify his lifestyle (F 216-218). Besides, it becomes clear that the respondents feel less personal responsibility in areas, where they are aware that only politics can implement long-term changes (e.g. power, fossil fuels) (T 257-260).

In most of the times, like in the example above, the responsibility is attributed to another level. Especially, the state-level is mentioned a lot. Clear statements are made, which favour a stronger commitment by the government to provide the needed conditions for a long-term change (cf. T110-112). Citizens will not unite, mobilize themselves and start to alter their behavioural patterns, unless the state paves the way for it as a role model (D 260-262). Thus, national politics are depicted to be the most responsible concerning the matter of handling the climate crisis, especially on grounds of its large influence on the economy (T 270-271). Hence, the state needs to set borders for industry and economy, provide improved incentives for consumers and install useful subventions, if a real change is aimed nationally and within the minds of individuals. Since “politics influence the private” (T 309), the government is characterized as the most powerful and thus, the most responsible agent in solving the climate crisis (F 239-245).

Collective responsibility is also mentioned oftentimes, especially in connection with the estimated greater effectivity of collective action in comparison to individual action (see 4.3.) . Predominantly, answers were stated, which strengthened the perception that individuals are indeed responsible, but mostly in a collective way as a civil society (C 246-248). Plenty of voices are collected which favour a greater citizen mobilization. If the public pressure is increased by a collective spirit, incentives are provided to generate new innovations and at the same time citizens can put pressure on the policymaking of the government (T 167-168).

Therefore, S even pleads for a stronger collective identity, which might turn into a stronger climate movement and even fosters the individual role (S 181-184).

Moreover, the global level of responsibility was mentioned as well. Entirely, all respondents agree on the aspect that the climate crisis is a global issue with global responsibility, which “does not know borders” (C 253-264). In addition, the role of Germany regarding its international impact on other states is evaluated as very high and it is oftentimes described as a role model in this regard (cf. D 308-313). Further, the respondents agree on the fact that with the purpose of justice, more powerful states, which produce the most environmental pollution, need to be accounted as more responsible than weaker and cleaner states as well (F 249-255). However, the students recognize that this transnational cooperation is an extremely difficult matter (F 241-242).

4.3. Perception of Effectivity and Willingness to take Action

Each respondent shared the opinion that one's own contribution to solve the climate crisis is marginally low and that their individual impact is not substantial. From the start of answering the questions they all independently agreed on the perception that an individual's possibilities to influence the whole situation is very restricted:

„The individual contribution always is difficult to evaluate, because me as an individual can only influence a tiny bit of the whole” (T 93-94).

One of the respondents even recognizes the theoretical aspect of the free-rider-problem when it comes to collective action and collective goods:

„Well, of course one individual does not have a large impact to change something significantly there, because the number of people is just too big. On the other hand, if everyone says that, noting will change at all. This is the so-called free-rider-problem. This is also the general issue with public goods” (C 117-120).

Nevertheless, all of them stated that individual behaviour indeed can have slight effects (cf. D 251-251) and that it matters on grounds of several reasons. As one respondent reflects, as with all issues, which concern the society on the whole, it is necessary that individuals start with looking at their own behavioural patterns. It cannot be justified that one expects from another person to take action, while he himself stays inactive (S 172-174).

Moreover, they were collected many statements, which mentioned that it is not enough if only a few people alter their behaviour. Large numbers are required for a real change (F 112-15 114). The actions of an individual, which are considered to be marginal, only have larger effects within the frame of collective action (D 137-139). Collective effectivity is especially considered to be effective, if a large number of people is mobilized to participate in this change together:

„But if we try to change that collectively, only then it will be effective” (D 143-144). One respondent stresses that not only a large mobilization needs to take place, but also that a variety of social and intergenerational groups need to be addressed to reach a successful impact. Moreover, it is also helpful, when there is a large electoral group involved, so politicians have higher incentives and pressure to react on their demands and reach lasting agreements (T 125-133). Through a growing collective identity regarding solving the climate crisis and an even stronger climate movement than now Fridays for Future is, one respondent believes that her own actions will be more meaningful as well (S 185-189).

All in all, each respondent seems to be very well aware of the fact, that individual action alone cannot change a thing. Nevertheless, some of the five respondents notice that individual action is indeed meaningful and necessary. Among other things, individualism is expected to play an important role during the climate crisis and that it forms one of the causes, which lead to a collective spirit (S 360-361).

Especially, collective action is connected with more success in having an effective impact. Since collective action is driven by individual action taking, individual behaviour is crucial. Hence, climate crisis concerns every human being and knows no borders, individual action also even becomes more significant, because we are all in this together (S 166-167). Despite these estimations, there are also voices, which had a rather sceptical view on the likelihood of collective behavioural change, even though it is assumed to be effective (D 152-154). Additionally, the opinions deviated from another when it comes to the estimation whether behaviour patterns can be changed due to one's own motivation.

“People do not like to dispense, it does not lie in their natural behaviour” (F 145-146).

Noteworthy is that some respondents mentioned the same fields, in which they expect individual action to be manageable and areas during their everyday life, in which they tend to be rather sceptic. Topics like regional and seasonal nutrition, veganism, public transportation, electric cars, the usage of renewable energies, clothing and cycling are stated several times (cf. T 145, D 208), although not every respondent also always acts among this knowledge.

For each respondent there seems to be another area, in which he or she struggles with altering behavioural attitudes. A variety of statements are collected, where the respondents explain that they know about their possibilities of action, but they still do not act upon it:

„Of course, I do have an ideal vision of my life, how it should be. This would be super minimalistic, I would life absolutely vegan and only own necessary things. This would be my ideal vision, which I assume to be rather unlikely to happen” (S 302-305).

Named reasons for this striking behaviour are financial issues, convenience, impractical options and a lack of economic initiated incentives by the state (cf. T 146-148, F 200-201). One respondent even reports of having a bad conscious, whenever he intentionally “buys the wrong things”, although he knows about their environmental footprint. But that bad conscious often is too weak to really alter his behaviour (F 188-189). S describes coping with climate crisis as “a very compromising life”, which sometimes feels easy and sometimes involves struggles (S 183, 351).

Regarding the willingness to take individual action, mixed answers are documented. One the one hand, there seems to be a strong willingness to take action against climate crisis:

“There are many things I want to implement. I have need for action in my everyday life, like everyone, I guess. Even the strictest person, still has a few things to improve, I guess (S 320-324).

On the other hand, many respondents lack the motivation, the feeling of the importance of their behaviour regarding the urgency of the climate crisis. Some of them seem to be very well aware of the topic, but nevertheless decide to refrain from action:

“I do not have the desire to cut back everything. It is always in my thoughts, but it does not determine, how I behave”(F 165).

Concerning the knowledge about the existing individual means to take action, each person responds that he or she knows about the possibilities (cf. S 241-242, F 157-158). In many cases, respondents recognize that they have individual means to take individual action, but they do not use them, because they perceive them to be connected with personal disadvantages (F 213-214). Others do not perceive the climate crisis as that present, which is why they do not have the feeling that they should alter their life (D 227-229).

It can be documented that especially those persons, who had already modified their everyday life and who are quite aware of the consequences of their actions, tend to have higher aspirations to further alter their behaviour patterns and stick to their fields of action more strictly (cf. T 189-190). Additionally, they also are more willing to learn more about their opportunities to help the climate:

“And this is why I want to know more about it, also because, for me it is a question of how much educated one wants to be. And because it tangents oneself individually very much, this is why I want to be as well informed as it is possible for me” (S 146-149).

4.4. Perceived Problems with Climate Crisis

During the course of the interviews, issues with handling the climate crisis were mentioned several times and are presented in this paragraph. One of the problems regarding dealing with the climate crisis was the perception that the immediate consequences cannot yet be experienced personally at the moment. Most of the respondents share the opinion that individuals only will react accordingly, if they recognize the environmental effects and are targeted directly (D 138-141). One of the grounds why this is the case might also be the climate crisis' long-term character (T 91-93). Additionally, the dynamic of the globalization seems to blur global responsibilities, which makes it even more difficult to identify responsibility and to follow it (S 178-182).

Moreover, the respondents noticed that dealing with the climate crisis in one's everyday life is a matter of one's geographical position, so living in the city or on the countryside, and the opportunities of action and freedoms which are accompanied by this living situation (F 129-135). Beyond that, some respondents doubt that human beings would abstain voluntarily from something they like or they can afford (F 128). In contrast to that, another respondent pleads that this is a matter of early socialisation and education (S 152-154).

Another aspect which was mentioned during the interviews is the question of intergenerational justice and the responsibilities towards the unborn life (C 233-236). This seems to be rather ethical considerations, which makes the living individuals responsible for future generations and the negative development of the climate, which questions the existence of humans per se:

“It is possible to speak very ontologically and say that the existence of human beings alone has a negative impact on the natural climate” (C 228-229).


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Attitudes towards Climate Change and the Willingness to Take Action
University of Bamberg
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attitudes, climate, change, willingness, take, action
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Maren Weiß (Author), 2020, Attitudes towards Climate Change and the Willingness to Take Action, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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