Climate Deal 2015

What Do People Want? Why Chile's Survey of Environmental Priorities Matters

The Government of Chile has mapped the environmental behavior and priorities of Chileans and published the results this week. This survey, together with Chile's ongoing public consultation on their national climate commitment,puts this country at the forefront of environmental and climate-change governance in our region. We need to hear this story, outside Chile. Hopefully others will take inspiration from their innovative effort to understand citizens priorities and to engage the public in the design of environmental and climate plans.

What did citizens say?

The study, commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, revealed opinions, behaviors and the environmental concerns of Chilean citizens. This is the first time a survey of this nature is conducted in Chile. By including all regions, the Government mapped not only the national outlook on environmental behaviors and priorities but also how they vary according to geography and social context. The Ministry of Environment will update this survey annually.

The top three environmental concerns were:

  • Air pollution (33%)
  • Waste (21%)
  • Noise (11%).

About 37% of the people ranked pollution-related issues as a priority.

The telephone survey was conducted between October and December 2014 with 5,046 people that were distributed in proportion to the population of each of the regions. The survey showed some regional divergences (e.g. water might be a stronger problem in other regions). Air pollution is top concern for 43% of Santiago citizens but the percentages in other tended to be lower in other regions.

A majority supports measures to reduce air pollution in their cities: 86% support putting restrictions on certain cars. Transport and industries are seen as the main sources of pollution (although in the southern cities burning hard wood came across as main source of air pollution).

Citizens and Climate Change

The way Chileans responded to questions about climate change is noteworthy. A contrast is observed between Chilean attitudes toward climate change and those in other latitudes, for example in the US, where the public has been misled into thinking that climate change is not “real”. In Chile:

  • 86% agreed that climate change is man-made
  • 86% agreed that climate change will have “concrete impacts in their every day life”.
  • 78% agreed that climate change is the “main environmental challenge of their generation”.

These answers were consistent in Santiago and other regions.

These answers are similar to those captured in a survey of citizens carried out by the Inter-American Development Bank in 5 large Latin American cities (In this survey, citizens also pointed to the climate change affecting their daily lives and to quality of life issues that they see as priority).

Citizen engagement and Daily life

For the Minister of the Environment, Paul Badenier, the survey shows that citizens are aware of the central environmental challenges facing the country and it confirms a new willingness to be involved in tackling these issues. For him, the results also underscore that that solving key challenges – for example waste management – will require actions from municipalities and businesses, not just the Ministry of Environment.

Can citizens participate in the design of environmental standards and plans? 58% said yes. About 76% responded positively to the question of whether community groups could apply for funding in order to improve the environmental quality of their communities.

The survey also mapped how environmental behavior among citizens (from consumer habits and visit to natural parks to choice of transportation). The results suggest that about 26% have embraced green habits, about 49% are middle of the road, and the rest do not embrace green habits. (See link below for more details)

A better conversation: Better lives and healthier people

Air pollution, waste problems and noise came ahead of climate change as citizen priorities (about 1% thought climate change were the main problem in Chile). This is understandable.

Chile is becoming highly urbanized, just like the rest of the Americas—the world´s most urbanized continent with 80% people living in cities—so it is reasonable that Chileans worry about dirty air, waste in the streets and irritating noise. Life would be better without them.

The Minister interprets the lack of opposition to restricting vehicles (or the use of firewood) as evidence that more people understand the connection between these restrictions and the benefits for their health.

So the reading of this survey confirms something that is not always evident in public debates in Europe and the US on climate change (where the focus for years has been on “carbon” and the pros and cons of this or that carbon-reduction target). In developing countries, especially in Latin America, the starting point of public debates can and should be different. The entry-point must be people´s needs instead of narrowly focused questions on emissions.We need to capture broader dimensions of development and engage non-climate expert such as urban developers, creative industries and health professionals.

Chile or Costa Rica could have very imaginative debates around questions such as “What makes a good life in Santiago (or San José)?” Put people's needs (not "emissions") at the center of the public debate. Get them inspired. Get them to be part of a new something.

Mapping people's priorities is therefore an essential step in this new direction.

Only when we know and grasp citizen priorities, will the supply of development solutions respond to people´s real needs. We might shift quicker toward more public transportation, cleaner vehicles or pragmatic recycling solutions. We might find unsuspecting priorities and solutions. The trick will be to build political support so that these solutions also low in emissions and conducive to climate resilience. Climate change benefits are likely to be the landing, not the starting point. Mitigation of carbon emissions will be the co-benefit, not necessarily the driver of new developmental decisions.

Chile wanted to know what people want from an environmental perspective. Now they got the answers and they will benefit from these citizen insights. The Government is also running a public consultation on what the national climate commitment should be (Look for our upcoming analysis of this process). They are setting up precedents that could inspire others and thus help kick out our countries' habit to decide public policy behind closed doors.

Want to know more?

This is the official link to the Survey.

Link to the Ministry of Environment's consultation on Chile's climate commitment.

Note from 10 March: Mexico launched an online citizen poll to consult their views on the Mexican contribution to the climate agreement (INDC in UNFCCC jargon). Here is a link to the poll.

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