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Miljöattityder och beteende: betydelsen av politiska institutioner för att lösa det kollektiva handlandets problem

Forskningsprojekt Med utgångspunkt i teorier om sociala dilemman och kollektivt handlande fokuserar projektet på politiska institutioners betydelse för att främja tillit och ömsesidigt samarbete som leder till att människor agerar utifrån sin miljömedvetenhet.

Under de senaste årtiondena har olika miljöproblem uppmärksammats. Många har satt sin tilltro till tekniska lösningar, men då dessa lösningar ofta inte räcker till menar många att det som återstår är att förändra människors beteende. Tidigare forskning har visat att människor i de flesta länder i allt högre utsträckning värnar om miljön, men att detta inte alltid omsätts i miljövänliga handlingar. Forskningen har dock inte lyckats presentera en tillfredsställande förklaring till varför miljömedvetna människor inte alltid försöker förbättra miljön, samt varför detta skiljer sig mellan länder.


Jonas Edlund
090-786 78 22



2015-07-01 2018-06-30


Marianne och Marcus Wallenbergs stiftelse, 2015-2018: 4 800 000 kr

Medverkande institutioner och enheter vid Umeå universitet

Samhällsvetenskaplig fakultet, Sociologiska institutionen





Over the last century, environmental problems such as greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and resource exhaustion have emerged as some of the major challenges facing humanity. Indeed, many argue that environmental problems now undermine the safety and welfare of virtually every human being on the planet. Parallel to this glooming development, many have put their hopes to the natural sciences and technology to solve the global environmental problems. However, it has become increasingly evident that the global environmental challenges cannot be solved by technical solutions alone. As noted by Heberlein (2012:4), “[w]hen changing the environment fails, as it so often does, human behavior must change”. Thus, the fate of the global environment appears to ultimately lie in the hands of citizens acting pro-environmentally and putting pressures on government to implement pro-environmental policies. Hence, in an ever-democratizing world, studying the attitudes and behaviors of ordinary citizens become increasingly important, especially in order to understand and overcome the obstacles hindering effective behavioral and policy responses to these problems.
This proposal outlines a comprehensive comparative research project concerning environmental attitudes and behavior. The main aim of the project is to increase current knowledge about environmental concerns and pro-environmental behavior by (i) mapping attitudes and behavior across countries and over time, specifically focusing on (ii) the link between attitudes and behavior, and (iii) the role of the national context in translating environmental concerns into pro-environmental behavior. In order to fulfill our aim, we will use unique and under-utilized datasets covering environmental attitudes and behavior in approximately 40 countries over a period of 17 years from 1993 to 2010.
Over this period, ‘the environment’ has been placed higher on the political agenda as well as stirring up significant political conflict and animated debates. Also, environmental concerns in the minds of ordinary citizens have increased across the globe (Dunlap, Gallup, & Gallup, 1993; Dunlap & Mertig, 1997), although to a different extent across countries (Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Gelissen, 2007). More importantly, the link between environmental concern (attitudes) and pro-environmental behavior is surprisingly weak (Olli & Woolebaek, 2001; Kollmus & Agyeman, 2002; Bamberg, 2003) and varies considerably across countries (Wright & Klÿn, 1998). This means that while environmental concerns have increased and that many people today do care about the environment, they do not always engage in pro-environmental behavior.
What makes environmentally concerned citizens of some countries more engaged in pro-environmental behavior than citizens of other countries? Are some groups more prone to act on their environmental concerns than others, and are there country-differences in this respect? Given the fact that people far from always act on their environmental concerns, exploring the link between environmental attitudes and behavior is a crucial task for contemporary research. After all, how can the global environmental problems be solved if people tend to not act on their environmental concerns? Whereas previous research has studied the link between environmental attitudes and behavior, and identified considerable cross-national differences in that link, very little is known about the underlying mechanisms tying attitudes to behavior.
The question of why many environmentally concerned individuals do not display pro-environmental behavior is indeed a mind-boggling puzzle. The disconnection between citizens’ environmental attitudes and behavior is not very likely the result of acquiescence or indifference, for then they would surely not be concerned in the first place. Building on the predominately sociological and political science literature on collective action and social dilemmas (e.g., Rothstein 2005), we argue that the translation of environmental concerns into pro-environmental engagement is contingent on the trust that people have in their fellow citizens to also act pro-environmentally. Hence, we believe that the link between attitudes and behavior appear especially susceptible to these kinds of collective action problems and social traps. Indeed, if individuals hold lower levels of trust in others, the rationale to act pro-environmentally would undoubtedly be undermined.
Previous studies consistently show that political institutions are crucial factors in shaping the social trust among citizens (Rothstein 2005). Considering that political institutions and trust levels differ vastly across national contexts, they constitute prime suspects in the search for the key factors explaining cross-national differences in the link between environmental attitudes and behavior. According to this line of reasoning, political institutions shape the social trust necessary for generating a general atmosphere of mutual cooperation which strengthens the rational to act on one’s environmental concerns. Are some institutional settings more successful in mobilizing citizens’ attitudes into concrete political action, such as voting green or engaging in other types of pro-environmental activities, and which institutional factors are particularly effective in establishing this link? We also believe that the way in which environmental issues are addressed politically and legislative is of paramount importance in shaping the prerequisites for effective collective action. In particular, the emergence of green parties has transformed the political debate in many countries, thereby not only influencing the implementation of environmental policies as such but also changing the way in which environmental issues are addressed. Hence, we argue that cross-national differences in political institutions in general, as well as in the setup and framing of more specific environmental policies, could potentially explain why citizens of some countries are more prone to act on their environmental concerns.
Very few studies systematically study the extent to which citizens of different countries have changed their attitudes and behaviors over time, nor studied which social groups that are particularly resistant, or particularly positive, to behavioral change. Furthermore, most studies focus on economic or cultural factors while ignoring the role of political institutions. However, if political institutions do not foster a general atmosphere of interpersonal and institutional trust and mutual cooperation, environmentally active citizens will very likely be few in numbers. As research suggests that there are substantial obstacles hampering the power of pro-environmental collective action across the globe, we believe that a crucial challenge for social scientists is to study these obstacles and their operation across countries and over time. The project will therefore yield critical insights for policy makers and politicians about how to design political institutions and regulatory frameworks that facilitate the translation of environmental concerns pro-environmental behavior among ordinary citizens.


As stated in the introduction, the main purpose of the project is to increase knowledge about environmental attitudes and behavior by systematically study them across countries and over time. Specific focus will be given to the link between environmental attitudes and behavior, and how this relationship evolves over time in different national contexts. Primarily, we will examine the role of the national political context in promoting or obstructing the translation of environmental concerns into pro-environmental behavior cross-nationally. In doing so, we will focus on the quality of government institutions and their capacity to generate a general sense of trust and cooperation among citizens, but also on more specific environmental policies and political rhetoric, and the extent to which they elicit a “pro-environmental spirit” in the mind of the public. We will study how these relationships evolve across time, and compare groups that potentially differ in their behavioral responses. Within the framework of the project, we will test several hypotheses concerning cross-level interactions between contextual factors and individual-level processes resulting in particular attitudes and behaviors. As we are likely to increase the knowledge on the role of macro-social properties facilitating or obstructing pro-environmental behavior, our results will be relevant not only to environmental researchers but also to politicians and policy makers placing environmental problems high on the agenda.


Present cross-national research suggests that there is a global trend towards increasing levels of pro-environmental attitudes over recent decades (Dunlap, Gallup, & Gallup, 1993; Dunlap & Mertig, 1997). Even though global concern about the environment generally has increased, significant differences across nations can be observed (Gelissen 2007). However, although several studies use the same data, there is still considerable debate regarding how to explain cross-country differences (Franzen, 2003). On the individual-level, research has identified several factors when explaining environmental attitudes: income, education, and scientific knowledge (Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Jagers, 2009; Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008). Other studies also suggest that environmental values are key determinants of support for pro-environmental policies (Stern & Dietz, 1994; Nilsson & Biel, 2008). Nevertheless, the relationship between many individual-level determinants and environmental attitudes often differ substantially across countries (Weaver, 2002), which suggest that environmental attitudes and their correlates may be affected by country level characteristics.
Several competing theories exist that can account for cross-country differences in environmental attitudes. For some, economic prosperity is a central factor. Inglehart (1995) suggests that increasing levels of material security and prosperity are associated with post-material values and environmental concern. Several studies have shown that GDP and post-materialist cultural values explain some of the variation across countries (Franzen & Meyer, 2010; Franzen, 2003; Gelissen, 2007; Oreg and Gerro 2006). Environmental economists also claim that material prosperity opens up for the possibility of environmental consumption (Diekmann & Franzen, 1999). However, other studies point at generally higher concerns for environmental issues in poorer countries, which question the relationship between GDP and environmental concern (Fairbrother, 2012). Other studies have also provided evidence that seriously question the relationship between post-materialist values and environmental concern (Dunlap & York 2008). Considering that efforts to link GDP growth and values to an increase in pro-environmental attitudes across countries have failed, the importance of studying other contextual-level factors appears increasingly urgent. Whereas most studies focus on GDP or cultural values in explaining environmental behavior, very few comparative studies focus on the significance of the political context.
A few single country studies show that environmental attitudes are influenced by political articulation (Jagers & Hammar, 2009), and by political and inter-personal trust (Harring & Jagers, 2013). First, since trust is clearly related to the quality of political institutions and that it is a prerequisite for social cooperation and collective action (Rothstein 2011), it is a highly interesting variable to study in relation to environmental attitudes and behavior across national contexts. Second, we need to get knowledge about the extent to which the articulation of political (e.g., environmental) issues by political parties and other organized interests are effective in changing behaviors and attitudes. As these articulations differ considerably across countries, the project will have ample opportunities to analyze whether certain types of articulation tend to be associated with particular environmental attitudes and behavior. Systematic studies on the significance of political and inter-personal trust, as well as the influence of political articulation, on environmental attitudes and behavior are virtually non-existent in contemporary research.
From a cross-national theoretical point of view, the goal of the project is to link possible explanations for variations in environmental attitudes and behavior to macro-social units in the political context. In the present project, we see the quality of government – the extent to which political institutions are designed in a way that they are perceived as efficient, impartial and trustworthy – as particularly interesting. Ideally, the design of political institutions should minimize public beliefs and perceptions of fellow-citizens acting as free-riders. Levels of social cohesion and trust in fellow-citizens are thus a product of the political institutional apparatus (Rothstein 2011). One can easily imagine that a citizen is more likely to cooperate if he/she trusts other fellow citizens to cooperate as well as he/she is more likely to engage and obey environmental policies if the political institutions that regulate them are perceived as trustworthy and designed so that most citizens will do the same (Rothstein, 2005).
While peoples’ attitudes can provide hints about actual pro-environmental behavior, it is an empirical question whether caring for the environment is translated into actually doing something for the environment. Although many explanations have been proposed – demographic, economic and cultural – to account for pro-environmental behavior (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002), only a few studies focus on the role of environmental attitudes for pro-environmental behavior. One exception can be found in Wright & Klÿn (1998), who study the correlation between green attitudes and green consumption behavior in 22 countries and find that correlations vary considerably across countries. In some countries, correlations are even non-significant. In short, this means that the link between environmental attitudes and behavior can be surprisingly weak (see also Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002), and to the extent that it exists it is not necessarily generalizable across countries. The project attempts to explain why this relationship differ cross-nationally.


In this section we outline our theoretical framework in terms of how we aim to advance the understanding of environmental attitudes and behavior. Next we present our analytical strategy, beginning with a description of the main variable categories involved in our analyses, followed by an account of the data. We then proceed by presenting our methods in terms of how we will analyze the data and the challenges it involves. We conclude by providing a timetable for the project, describing the project members and the scientific milieu as well as outlining our publication plan and other channels for dissemination of our results.
Theoretical framework
The explanatory theoretical framework in the project builds on the literature on collective action problems, denoted “social traps” or “social dilemmas” (Rothstein 2005), which is particularly suitable given the properties characterizing environmental issues. The dilemma is described by Rothstein (2005): the “situation” is that “everybody” wins if “everybody” cooperates. However, if one does not believe that nearly everybody cooperates then it is not worth cooperating because the situation will not be solved unless nearly everyone cooperates. Therefore, social trust is essential and a prerequisite for cooperation. As most conceivable solutions to environmental problems require a certain degree of cooperation, trust in fellow citizens is a crucial component in solving these problems.
Whereas neither states nor markets have proven especially successful in solving environmental issues such as resource exhaustion and depletion (Ostrom 1990), there are vast differences across countries in how environmental problems are addressed and dealt with. This in turn should generate very different circumstances for collective action across nations, especially when it comes to mobilizing citizens of democratic societies in response to particular environmental issues. Accordingly, we believe that the national political context is decisive in establishing the link between environmental attitudes and behavior and to promote pro-environmental behavior. As a result, we will draw on theories about institutional feedback effects (Pierson 1993; Mettler and Soss 2004) where attitudes and behavior is not only seen as input into the electoral system (Lipset & Rokkan 1967) but also as an output of the existing institutional setting. According to this perspective, political institutions are normative frameworks that shape the formation of attitudes and behavior among citizens. Moreover, institutions impact on public views on institutional capability, and thus beliefs about the limitations and possibilities of democratic institutions to solve social problems (Rothstein 1998; Svallfors 2007; Steinmo 1994; Mettler & Soss 2004; Edlund 2006). Institutions not only influence the beliefs that people have about them, they also influence more general orientations such as perceptions, norms and social trust. In particular, generalized trust crucially depends on the extent to which the political institutions in society are believed to be trustworthy, efficient, and impartial. Given that social trust is a crucial safeguard against social traps, the way in which institutions are set up is of paramount importance.
In addition to the actual setup of institutions, the articulation and framing of political issues also exerts an influence on attitudes and behavior (e.g., Jacoby 2000). Whereas the articulation of political issues often reflects the institutional setup, the two are far from identical. According to the ‘symbolic politics’ perspective (Sears and Funk 1991:14), the principal goal of politicians is to “code political symbols in terms of what will evoke widespread and supportive predispositions in the citizenry”. Environmental issues may be framed in such a way that aligns with the overall political agenda. For instance, environmental problems may be toned down in favor of economic growth. However, here we envision two broad categories of framing effects. First, the extent to which environmental issues are placed high on the political agenda is bound to vary considerably across countries. Second, the character regarding the articulation of environmental problems and their solutions might also differ depending on the country of focus. For instance, politicians may differ in the extent to which they define environmental issues as problems or not, and whether potential problems pertain to the local or global level. The proposed solutions may also differ; whereas some politicians stress technological solutions, others emphasize the need for changing lifestyles and consumption patterns.

Data and methods

Data on citizens’ environmental attitudes and relevant individual-level characteristics come from two high-quality cross-country surveys: the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) and the European Social Survey (ESS). ISSP is a global comparative project covering 48 countries with the objective to construct internationally comparable surveys of adult citizens’ attitudes and values. The “Environment” surveys, fielded in 1993, 2000 and 2010, will be used in the project. The data provides ample opportunity to examine the influence of country-level factors and temporal trends on a large array of different environmental attitudes and behaviors. The ESS has fielded five surveys (2002-2010) containing information on environmental attitudes, and a large number of relevant variables measuring basic human values, inter-personal trust, trust in politicians and political institutions. The ESS data therefore enables us to specifically examine various underlying individual-level mechanisms related to the formation of environmental attitudes. The data sets therefore complement each other – while ISSP provides several different dependent variables and a large number of countries; ESS is rich in terms of individual-level determinants of attitudes and other mediating individual-level variables, but limited in terms of dependent variables.


We will employ both attitudinal and behavioral variables. The attitudinal variables differ between general orientations, e.g., how concerned individuals are about environmental issues in general and more specific. Both the ESS and the ISSP include items tapping general environmental concern. More specific attitudes towards the environment are also available. We will study preferences about strategies and solutions to environmental problems including the role of government and market actors as well as the role of science as a problem-solving institution, as well as environmental perceptions regarding causes and consequences of implemented solutions to environmental problems and perceptions about obstacles for environmental protection. By studying the ranking of environmental issues in relation to other political issues we will be able to assess how important the environment is in the minds of ordinary citizens.
With regard to pro-environmental behavior, we will focus on two broader categories. First, we will focus on environmental behavior with significant consequences for parliamentary politics, e.g., voting on green parties and active engagement in environmental organizations as well as whether the respondent has participated in demonstrations or signed a petition related to environmental issues. Second, we focus on the pro-environmental behaviors in people’s everyday life, using items that ask respondents about recycling, energy-efficient housing, environmentally friendly (ecologic) consumption and car use.
In terms of macro-level (country level) variables, those related to “quality of government”, “implemented environmental policies” and “political articulation” are of primary interest. Quality of government is measured in terms of the efficiency and impartiality of government institutions. The data will be collected from the Quality of Government (QOG) databases. We will use the ICRG indicator reflecting the impartiality of the legal system, the degree of corruption, and the strength and expertise of the bureaucracy, in a country, just to mention a few. Data on which effective environmental policies that actually are in place is collected from the “OECD database on instruments used for environmental policy and natural resources management”. The measurement regarding the articulation of political issues, mainly examining if and how environmental issues are articulated by political parties will be based on the “Comparative Manifestos Dataset”, which contains quantitative content analyses of party manifestos from 50 democratic countries as early as from the 1940s up to the present, thereby to a great extent reflecting the political articulation of environmental (“Environmental protection” items) and other political issues across nations and over time. Crucial control variables will entail economic indicators, such as GDP per capita and economic growth which are available in the OECD databases.


There are two main methodological challenges that the project needs to meet. The first concerns the general reliability problem when attempting to measure attitudes. Since our ambition is to capture the “same” attitudinal dimensions across countries and time points we need a method that can create genuinely comparative attitudinal measures. This is an essential challenge, especially when comparing public opinion across countries as well as over time, which we intend to meet by using Latent Class Analysis (LCA). By exploring the relationships between several manifest variables, LCA identifies classes of respondents sharing similar characteristics on a set of categorical variables. This method is of central importance in our comparative approach since it is possible to include “country” and “year” as covariates in the statistical model to ensure that the empirical assessment of the theoretical construct is the same in each country and at each time-point. Furthermore, to the extent that our models require statistical techniques that involve linear treatment of associations between variables, structural equation models (SEM) will be used. In particular, the multi-group framework of SEM enables the test of measurement invariance (e.g., equivalence) across countries and time points, thereby securing the comparability of the measurements. Another advantage of SEM is the extensive opportunities to test for mediation, as well as even more complex relationships between variables.
Another methodological challenge concerns the requirement to simultaneously treat contextual, temporal and individual-level effects in the same statistical model. This is important since a major part of our theoretical framework on environmental attitudes and behavior is linked to the characteristics of countries and the development of country-level characteristics over time. Ideally, these three levels of analysis need to be separated in order to systematically assess their relative importance for individual outcomes such as environmental attitudes and behavior. In order to deal with this challenge we will employ cross-sectional time series analysis within a multilevel framework, where the variation in the dependent variable is partitioned into three parts, one part representing variation between individuals (nested within countries and time points), and the other parts with variation between countries and variation between time points (nested within countries).


The fate of the global environment ultimately lies in the hands of ordinary citizens and the extent to which they act pro-environmentally, including putting pressures on government to take appropriate actions. It is therefore of tremendous importance to study attitudes towards environmental issues across the globe, and to reveal the conditions under which they are most likely to be translated into pro-environmental behavior. Given that previous research has not been able to provide a satisfying explanation for why the link between environmental attitudes and behavior is conspicuously weak – and for the cross-national differences in the extent to which environmental concerns are translated into pro-environmental behavior – our project constitute an important contribution to the present state of research. Moreover, to the extent that the theoretical expectations in the project will receive empirical support, we will learn a great deal about how to construct political institutions and regulatory frameworks that facilitate pro-environmental behavior among ordinary citizens. Hence, the project has the potential to provide politicians and policy makers with crucial information on how to successfully promote pro-environmental behavior.


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Senast uppdaterad: 2022-01-20