Massive Facebook survey shows climate investors have more sway on public opinion than you think

Investors are used to using their acumen and financial heft to find companies that might disrupt markets. But it turns out their views and investments might disrupt public opinion, too.

A massive survey of Facebook users from around the world shows a vast group of people who are neither convinced that climate change is the result of human activities nor caused by natural changes. (The former, of course, is the correct answer.) Those people in the middle can be swayed by climate tech investors through their investments and public views, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“Those climate-aware investors and business leaders and so on play a critical role not just in communicating to their own tribe, which is of course important, but to the larger community, to the larger market, to help them understand why they’re making these investments,” Leiserowitz said.

“That is an incredibly important message, literally the investment itself. And then people seeing and hearing that that investment is being made is a very strong signal to everybody else, that [climate change] is really serious, and people are taking action,” he added.

The survey was conducted by Leiserowitz’s group and Meta’s Data for Good team, and it collected responses from over 100,000 Facebook users from 192 countries. (Notably absent are China and Russia; the service is banned in both countries.) Users were asked a variety of questions, including how much they knew about climate change and whether they thought it was happening. The latter answer was an overwhelming yes, with around 70% to 95% of people in a country in agreement.

That led them to another question: Whether climate change is caused by human activities, natural changes in the environment, neither or both equally. The last answer is the intriguing choice, one where investors’ decisions come into play.

“We think at least some proportion of those is a legitimate belief that it is about equally caused by both. For some people, it’s actually a way of saying, ‘You know, I’m not really sure,’” Leiserowitz said. “It’s probably a combination without really committing yourself to either saying it’s human-caused or that it is natural.”

Almost across the board, no matter the country or continent, about a quarter to a third of respondents fell into this category. In smaller surveys, Leiserowitz’s group is able to offer an open-ended answer because the data is easier to code (that is, translate into a statistically meaningful category). But the results of this larger survey still show broad trends that investors can key into.

Investors, Leiserowitz said, “have a particularly important role to play, because what we also see very clearly in our research is the importance of what are called elite cues. Those people like political leaders, experts in the economy or in health or national security, the people who get paid professionally to understand these types of issues and make decisions based on them — they play a really critical role in larger society.

“Because the rest of the lay public, who are not experts in any of these things, tend to look to those experts to help … guide them as to how they should be thinking, feeling and acting toward the issue,” he said.

The conversation around climate change has shifted significantly in the last decade, Leiserowitz said. And it’s happening on every scale, from global to national to local, something he and his colleagues have noticed in the nearly 20 years they’ve been studying the issue. “The trend lines are all very clear.”

“When people do talk about it and are demonstrating through very real actions, like, ‘We are investing a billion dollars in X,’ that is a very clear signal that people are taking this issue very seriously,” he said.

In other words, the benefit for climate tech investors is twofold: They do well by making money and do good by being loud about those investments. Not a bad way to earn a living.