The Risk-Monger

Coming back from Green Week this year, I began to wonder what, if anything, is the point anymore. It is not just that the Green 10 NGOs no longer participate in the stands or engage in dialogue anymore (even though DG Environment still gives these NGO activists bucket-fulls of money to do so). It is not just the waste generated in all of the materials telling me not to waste resources. It is not even because Karl Falkenberg was making no effort at all to listen to the speakers, while chatting and joking with Connie Hedegaard on the stage for all to see. The real pointlessness of it all was found in a Eurobarometer advanced document left on the table in front of all of us that indicated that all of the European Environment Agency and European Commission’s efforts over the last decade to drive environment policy in certain directions went against the concerns of the European public. Yes Commissioner Potočnik, it is time to do what the Belgians call a ‘Relooking’, declare every week to be Green Week and stop the nonsense and waste that Green Week has become.

The Eurobarometer document entitled “Attitudes of European Citizens towards the Environment” (to be published online) should shatter the hopes and dreams of NGO activists and impassioned European civil servants as it shows how little European citizens really care about those issues we have been told are important to us. The research was based on almost 27,000 face-to-face interviews done between April 13 and May 8, 2011, so the data is both recent and comprehensive (and hard to ignore). What conclusions about the attitudes of Europeans towards the environment can we then conclude?

GMOs? Yes please!

The 27,000 interviewees were shown a list of 15 environmental issues, and asked to select five that worried them. Only 19% said that GMOs was one of the five main environmental issues that worried them. GMOs came in twelfth place out of the fifteen, just ahead of urban problems (traffic and green spaces), transport impact and noise pollution. I wonder how much lower GMOs would rank if citizens were given the added worry choices of food security, food prices and developing country famines. We can conclude from this survey that when anti-GMO campaigners claim that we don’t want GMOs, they actually mean “they don’t want GMOs” … the rest of us don’t really care.

Another flat note was the worry of the loss of biodiversity, which was one of the top five concerns of only 22% of Europe’s citizens (just above GMOs and our consumption habits). This is a sad indictment of the ineffectiveness of the European Environment Agency after having spent 2010 (the UN year of biodiversity) campaigning to get Europeans concerned about biodiversity loss. I hope someone in Copenhagen is paying attention to the Eurobarometer results. I know it is hard for certain people in the EEA to listen to others so perhaps it is time for some of their aging activists and flower children to go.

Climate Change? Yawn!

Most of us could be forgiven for thinking that the only environmental issue man faces is climate change, right? Wrong! It seems that only one third of European citizens (34%) consider this a big issue. Is it climate fatigue after ten years of mind-numbing narrative congestion? Is it the deception and greed of the University of East Anglia? Or maybe Europeans need even more awareness raising (educating?) on the threats of climate change? I cringe to think that the “those that do not listen” class will use this as an opportunity to push the fear campaigns harder. In the 2007 Eurobarometer survey, climate change topped the list, with 57% considering it one of their main worries.

Climate change came fifth on the list of worries this year, only one percentage point above waste worries and the fear of natural resource depletion (so almost half-way down the list). Sadly, Eurobarometer did not consider secure access to energy supply as an environmental worry – that would have bumped climate further down the list (not to mention the main general public worries of job security and inflation).

What are European citizens’ main environmental worries then? Not pesticides (only 25% are worried about all types of agricultural pollution). Man-made disasters like oil spills topped the list (BP?), followed by water and air pollution. It shocks me how little NGOs and policy-makers spend on these issues. Maybe it is too hard for NGOs to frighten people enough to raise money on water and air, and maybe these issues are too hard for policy-makers to manage.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Eurobarometer interviewees were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “You are ready to buy environmentally friendly products, even if they cost a little bit more”. In a face-to-face interview, only the most moronic or insensitive of us would publicly disagree with this statement, right? Well, 25% actually did disagree (up from 19% for the same question in pre-recession 2007). I am sure consumer goods manufacturers have been busy studying the results of this survey.

As we appear to be headed into a decade of austerity, I wonder how long policy-makers will continue to pretend that the environment is a significant issue for European citizens. It seems that some have already seen the pointlessness of it all. Every year during Green Week, the Berlaymont building carries a green message on their (PVC tarpaulin) billboard facing the Schuman roundabout. This year though, during Green Week, the Berlaymont message declared the EU’s commitment to sound economic and financial governance. The writing is on the wall, Commissioner Potočnik: next year, make a commitment to financial governance and declare every week to be Green Week. Your ‘relooking’ would look good!

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