Changing lifestyles. Whose lifestyles?

Awareness of the climate crisis has increased significantly, but less so than the willingness of people in the industrialized world to change their daily lives. The latest surveys show this. The case of water is an exception.


Climate change is already a climate crisis for most of the world’s population. Heat waves, droughts, and floods have given enough warning. People are duly informed and see how temperature records and days without rain are more and more common. Few deny it, and many are seriously alarmed. It seems clear that science has succeeded in spreading its main conclusion: global warming is escalating and is anthropogenic; that is, it is due to the emission of gases caused by human action. But there is still a long way to go when it comes to taking action.

We Are Water image

Global warming is escalating and is anthropogenic; that is, it is due to the emission of gases caused by human action. © Marek Piwnicki /unsplash

Perceptions remain uneven

Surveys on how the population perceives the climate crisis have increased recently, but few have asked people what they would be willing to change to contribute to the fight for a sustainable future. Most of the studies have been carried out preferably in developed countries, those that contribute most to gas emissions and whose lifestyles have the most significant influence on the machinery of global industry. The results, while presenting many commonalities, show some significant differences.

Perception of the problem has increased, but unevenly between Europeans and Americans. Two years ago, Yale University published that, in the US, 66% believe that climate change is a severe problem, and 56% share the idea that it is mainly caused by human activity; this is good news as it shows significant progress in a country where denialism is deeply rooted. In contrast, around the same time, the European Commission stated that 92% of its citizens admit the seriousness of the climate situation, and 87% are convinced that it is anthropogenic.

The differences on both sides of the North Atlantic, where more than half of the world’s economy is generated, are striking and seem to set the range between peaks and troughs. However, the survey conducted by the Ipsos agency, which is present in more than 90 countries, can be considered the benchmark average: 71% of those surveyed think climate change is a severe problem, and 61% believe it is caused by human activity.

The most extreme phase of denialism, in which people do not admit the phenomenon or its seriousness, seems to be ending. The urgency now lies in turning awareness into action. Again, news from rich countries is crucial; according to the World Bank, they represent only 16% of the world’s population but are responsible for 78% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Not paying taxes, but planting trees

YouGov survey conducted in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and Italy clearly shows that awareness of the seriousness of the climate crisis is advancing by leaps and bounds. Seventy percent of the inhabitants of these countries are genuinely concerned about global warming, and less than 20% say that climate change is not caused by human activity, with only 5% still denying that it is happening. The Mediterranean Basin countries (Italy and Spain) show the highest concern rates. However, there is also strong support, around 80%, for the view that all nations would be more effective in tackling climate change if they worked together.

But there is less agreement on what exactly people will do about it. Rejection of single-use plastic is broadly accepted, including support for legislating against its commercialization. However, the mobility issue shows how deeply rooted car use is in the assessment of Europeans’ quality of life. The idea of giving up driving and exclusively using public transport, walking, or cycling is advancing very slowly: in France, Italy, and Spain, 35%, 40%, and 44%, respectively, said they would be willing to take this radical step in their lifestyle.

We Are Water image

The idea of giving up driving and exclusively using public transport, walking, or cycling is advancing very slowly. © Florian Kurrasch / unsplash

Those against the idea of banning the production of gasoline and diesel cars remain in the majority, albeit by a narrow margin. However, those opposed to increasing fuel taxes clearly outnumber those in favor in all countries: about 65% are against paying more at the gas station.

Measures that do not involve a significant lifestyle sacrifice are the most popular. Among these, government tree-planting programs were the most supported. Logically, Spain, a country seriously threatened by desertification, has the highest rate, 92%, and Germany, a much more forested country, has the lowest, 77%.

Opposition to meat and dairy diets is growing slightly

Concerning dietary changes, the position on the intake of meat and dairy products does not vary significantly. It is known that intensive cattle farming is responsible for about 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. However, the willingness to change dietary habits is low.

In these seven countries, almost 5% of the population say they do without these products altogether, a percentage that is increasing slightly; and 13.4% would favor eliminating them from their diet completely. But opposition remains strong: 62.5% refuse to do without meat and dairy products entirely, a population that remains stable.

However, limiting these livestock products to 2-3 meals a week shows greater support: 35% are in favor, with 30% opposed, while 18% say they already follow this practice.

Everything changes when it comes to water

The YouGov survey did not address water issues. However, several significant studies have emerged in recent years. Generally speaking, in the USA, a country that consumes an average of 310 liters of water per capita per day, most people do not know how much water they use. In Europe, according to a European Commission report, the average water consumption is much lower: about 120 liters per person per day, but many Europeans, like Americans, need to be made aware of the savings they could make and the cost of wastewater treatment.

However, in both the U.S. and Europe, awareness of water issues is overwhelmingly high and in line with the global average. For example, according to a worldwide survey conducted by Ipsos in 2021, 68% of respondents said they would be willing to reduce their water consumption. Another survey conducted by the European Commission in 2020 found that 62% of its citizens would even be willing to pay more for water if it would contribute to more sustainable management of this resource.

We Are Water image

For many in the less developed economies, among the inhabitants of prosperous economies, lifestyle change is much more challenging: coping with famine and migration, saving children from unsuitable water, and rebuilding homes after floods. © Rabiul Hasan

Industrialized countries are significant importers of water through the food trade. Calculations of the water footprint of food consumed in a country like the United Kingdom show that while the average British consumption (their water bill) is about 150 liters per day, the “real” consumption is 4,645 liters, more than 30 times higher; in other words, the goods and services consumed by the British indirectly require much more water than what they use directly in their homes or businesses. This situation in most European countries is a little-known imbalance that complicates the already controversial diet issue.

Water problems are closer to the population. People also perceive that the effectiveness of their actions, such as reducing the water footprint of their diet or taking a shower in less than four minutes, is more tangible for the environment than reducing energy consumption or car use.

Scientific information is not enough

Rational knowledge of what is happening is essential but does not shape social attitudes, even if it is effectively disseminated. The tendency to shift the problems of climate change into the future or to relativize them in the face of others perceived as more immediate is rooted in the resistance to lifestyle changes among the inhabitants of prosperous economies. For many in the less developed economies, lifestyle change is much more challenging: coping with famine and migration, saving children from unsuitable water, and rebuilding homes after floods. The industrialized world must lead the sacrifices and think that saving the planet saves people.