Summers of record heat. Torrential rains wiping out cities and small towns. Droughts devastating regional economies and familiar projects. Hail storms and hurricanes out of season or out of route have become no longer the exception but the rule. No one doubts that climate change is no longer a speculative topic for scientists but a daily occurrence. What was not so clear is that Latin Americans are the most concerned about the issue in the world.
A study by the global Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research (WIN) in association with the consulting firm Market Analysis, reveals that 7 out of 10 Latin Americans strongly agree that global warming is a serious threat to humanity. Only a handful of Southeast Asian countries, often hard hit by floods and climate disasters such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia, register greater concern, but as a region, Latin America exhibits an unparalleled degree of alertness. In contrast, despite the abundance of information and recent tragedies, Europeans and North Americans seem less alarmed.
If such a vast consensus of public opinion were to guide the actions of governments or their key institutions, it would be expected that our region would become a spokesperson and active agent in the climate negotiations. And we would see clear leadership in a few months when the next UN Climate Change Conference, COP-27, is held in November in Egypt. Will this be what we will see in the near future?
Like so many other emergencies, from inflation to criminality, from educational deterioration to the explosion of drug addiction, our societies are quick to show their concerns and slow or inconsistent in reacting publicly and collectively to try to solve them. It is not uncommon to explain these gaps by cultural deviations that tend to over-dramatize too many issues at the same time and take refuge in the transfer of responsibilities to third parties. In other cases, they tend to be restrictions on civil liberties or rights that prevent people from speaking out (as happened under dictatorships or during the harsh quarantines of 2020). Interestingly, none of these alternatives helps us to understand the current framework.
In the case of the climate crisis, the anxiety and sense of record emergency of Latin Americans are neutralized by a paralyzing combo of inertial optimism, exaggerated individual self-responsibility and exculpation of those who have resources and original responsibilities for the factors that generated the climate changes. Result: a public opinion environment that leaves both observers and decision-makers perplexed and inert, discouraging the prospect of seeing any Latin American head of state taking a shocking action in favor of restrictions on emissions.
The anguish unleashed by climate change does not necessarily generate pessimism about the course of our societies. On the contrary, Latin Americans in general, and Brazilians in particular, stand out as the most optimistic about the possibility of correcting the current problems. Only 25% in Brazil fully or partially agree that it is too late to correct the climate cataclysms underway despite the evidence. This places them as the most optimistic developing country, surpassing even North Americans and their naturalized climate change denial and skepticism.
Mexicans, Paraguayans, Peruvians, and Colombians also have majorities that trust in a happy ending without much argument to defend that point of view, based on a naïve redemptive belief in science or business actions, thus deflating the generic alarmism shown on the subject.
This latent optimism contrasts with the skepticism of Asian societies. Two-thirds of India and 6 out of 10 Chinese and Pakistanis openly question the idea that it is only a matter of time before the solutions eradicate the problem. The desertification of their soils, the pollution and disappearance of their water sources, the monsoon floods and the spread of pests, the result of excessive heat, remind almost a third of the humanity gathered there that optimism is a lack of information or brutal experience with facts.
Individualized self-accountability and exculpation of those responsible
The phenomenal individualization of climate change solutions (and the perceived partial innocence of corporations and governments) is another factor that discourages public and collective mobilization or the oversight and enforcement of effective decisions by leaders. In fact, 9 out of 10 Brazilians, Mexicans, Peruvians, Colombians, and Paraguayans believe that their personal actions can make a difference in environmental quality. And 80% of Argentines and Chileans feel the same way.
These perceptions are above the average for European or North American countries where legislation and organizational infrastructure allow consumers to be more assertive in influencing responsible actions by companies and governments. This is all the more surprising given that 50% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the richest 10% of the world’s population, which basically excludes almost all Latin Americans.
If European or North American citizens were leaders in recognizing their responsibilities with their sidereal consumption impact, this would sound reasonable. A Canadian emits 14 tons of CO2 per year, a Finn 9.7, an English or a Japanese between 8.5 and 8.1, respectively. But the fact that Latin Americans (who emit around 3-3.5 tons of CO2 per capita per year) do so tells us a different story.
Undoubtedly, a sense of environmental empowerment helps to create more engaged citizens, but it also risks creating a false awareness of agents of change, especially when it is reduced to small, innocuous, individual, everyday acts. Mainly when compared to the effect that corporate and state decisions can have.
If it is true that on average 60% of the emissions that affect the climate arise from residential consumption (which would turn individuals into major agents), it is the decisions about products’ design made by companies and the energy sources used or encouraged by governments – or the way of regulating or encouraging how to move around, consume, live, work or study – that condition the ultimate impact of individuals in their day-to-day management.
However, among Latin America’s inhabitants, there is a strong inclination to exculpate corporations and states (who have the resources and influence to shape the public agenda on a large scale) by placing the obligation on individuals. Nearly a third of Latin Americans do not believe that the main effort in favor of sustainability and the environment should come from companies or governments, but rather from individuals. Among middle and lower-middle-class individuals in Brazil, this figure is 40%. In Europe, Africa, and Asia, this belief is shared by a fourth of individuals, at most.
With these ambiguities, the regional public agenda leaves room to empty the environmental debate by choreographing it with rhetoric as alarmist as it lacks executive plans. Given the political and financial costs of reducing consumption, mitigating the impact of our lifestyles, investing in green technologies, and changing habits to neutralize the climate crisis, it will be difficult for any regional leader not to see in this inertial optimism, personalization of responsibility and partial innocence of governments and corporations, an opportunity to occupy the scene dramatically but without making decisions that modify the course of the problem.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva