Climate change and the voice of the public


  • C. C. Jaeger Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • B. Kasemir Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science and Technology
  • S. Stoll-Kleemann Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • D. Schibli Swiss Federal INstitute for Environmental Science and Technology
  • U. Dahinden Zürich University


Decisions on which climate risks to accept and on how to use energy in the future affect every citizen’s life. Public participation on these issues is necessary to find policies supported by the public. It is especially important because uncertainties about climate issues allow only descriptions in terms of subjective probabilities, invariably linked to subjective preferences. Subjective probabilities and preferences of experts can be balanced by those of ordinary citizens. IA-focus groups are a promising research method to explore citizens’ views on climate change. We discuss this method and its application involving approx. 100 citizens in Switzerland. Three findings are presented. First, the discussion groups emphasize the moral dimension of man-made climate change. Second, they tend to see a future characterized by high levels of energy use as nightmarish, while they tend to see a future characterized by low levels of energy use as an attractive option. Third, while they see energy reduction as desirable, the willingness to engage in high-cost options like a hard-hitting carbon tax is practically nil. This apparent contradiction can be interpreted as follows: the possibility of major climate impacts ignites the public imagination, but subjective probabilities associated with it are rather low. Under these conditions, support for a low-energy society indicates that citizens expect such an option to be achievable at low cost. Rather than dismissing this expectation offhand as unrealistic, we argue that research on how low-cost options could lead to significant reduction in energy use would meet an important social need.

Author Biography

U. Dahinden, Zürich University

Department of Mass Communication