Majority believe Earth is approaching tipping points, and are ready for change

Following the recent IPCC report, IPSOS Mori and the Global Commons Alliance released a global survey on public attitudes towards tipping points, planetary stewardship and necessary economic and societal transformations on 17 August. Scientists from the Earth Commission contributed in shaping the survey, which provides some of the most granular insights to date on these critical issues from the G20 countries.

Across the world’s largest economies, 73% of people believe Earth is approaching potentially abrupt or irreversible tipping points because of human action. The number was even higher among those who define themselves as global rather than national citizens.

The survey also found that the majority of people (58%) living in G20 countries are very concerned or extremely concerned about the state of the global commons. And 83% of people are willing to do more to become better “planetary stewards” and protect and regenerate the global commons. People in developing economies showed greater willingness to do more to protect nature and climate than those in advanced economies: Indonesia (95%), South Africa (94%), China (93%), Mexico (93%), Brazil (91%), compared with Japan (61%), Germany (70%), and the United States (74%).

“The world is not sleepwalking towards catastrophe. People know we are taking colossal risks, they want to do more and they want their governments to do more,” said Owen Gaffney, the lead author of the report, The Global Commons Survey: Attitudes to planetary stewardship and transformation among G20 countries, and director of communications for the Global Commons Alliance.

The survey highlighted significant discontent with the dominant economic systems across G20 countries. Among G20 countries, 74% of people support the idea that their country moves beyond a singular focus on profit and economic growth and focus more on human wellbeing and ecological protection and regeneration. This view is consistently high among all G20 countries. It is particularly high in Indonesia (86%), Turkey (85%) and Russia (84%), but even the lowest scoring countries score highly: United States (68%), Great Britain (68%), Canada (69%).

“Some of the most striking results of the survey are the very high levels of awareness, concern and willingness to act to protect nature across so many countries including those in North America and Europe but also those in what is often called global south – Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa”, said Diana Liverman, member of the Earth Commission and Professor at the School of Geography, Development and Environment, University of Arizona. “People really want to do something to protect nature, but report that they lack information and face financial constraints to what they can do. The majority of people in most countries know we need to transform our energy systems, with about a third also acknowledging the need to also transform our food, value and economic systems. As in previous environmental attitude surveys, women and younger people are more concerned and action-oriented than men”.

Even if many acknowledge the need to protect nature, most are less aware of the scientific consensus that sweeping systemic transformations needed in the next decade to protect the global commons and meet climate targets set out in the UN’s Paris Agreement. While 59% of people in G20 countries know scientists acknowledge a very rapid energy transition is needed in the next decade, just 8% of people think this is about a need for broader economic changes in the next decade including dietary change, price of goods and services to include environmental costs and moving to circular economies. However, 28% of people are aware that scientists think significant change is needed.

In the survey the global commons were defined to include life on Earth, fresh air and climate, oceans, forests, ice sheets, freshwater, and other processes that keep Earth stable and resilient. For simplicity the terms “nature” and “global commons” were used interchangeably.

“We were surprised by the difference in attitudes between people living in wealthy economies and those living in emerging economies. I can speculate that the destruction of the global commons is more visible and tangible for people living in countries with huge ecosystems like the rainforests of Brazil and Indonesia right on their doorstep. Global trade separates people in wealthy economies from the impacts. But more work is needed to really work out why,” added Owen Gaffney.

The survey also found that 69% of people believe the benefits of action to protect the global commons outweigh the costs. This view is highest in China (82%), Brazil (87%) and Indonesia (85%). It is lowest in France (44%), Japan (53%) and the United States (60%). And, 71% of people in G20 countries agree the pandemic recovery is a unique moment to build societies more resilient to future shocks. 75% of people agree that the pandemic has shown that it is possible for people to transform behaviour very rapidly. Most people agreed that despite the pandemic, protecting nature and the climate is still a priority. Just 26% of people felt countries “have enough to worry about”. India, though, stands out with 56% of people feeling that the Covid-19 recovery means nature is a much lower priority.

”The results show that people are ready for change, and the U.N. meetings this year related to climate and biodiversity – and in Stockholm next year – are opportunities that should not be missed by policymakers to take bold action to meet the Paris agreement and halt the loss of biodiversity. This is what science tells us is necessary in order to protect the global commons and ensure a safe and just future”, said Wendy Broadgate, Director of the Earth Commission Secretariat and Global Hub Director, Future Earth, Sweden.

The survey was carried out by Ipsos MORI in April and May, 2021 – before the release of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report. It was conducted across G20 countries with 19,735 people surveyed. Interviews were conducted online. In each country, the data is weighted to be representative of the national population.

Download the report, The Global Commons Survey: Attitudes to planetary stewardship and transformation among G20 countries.