Skip to Georgetown Americas Institute Full Site Menu Skip to main content
November 30, 2023

Matias Spektor Shares Research on Public Opinions towards Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean

On October 12,  2023, the Georgetown Americans Institute (GAI) hosted Matias Spektor, GAI resident fellow and professor of politics and international studies at Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, Brazil, and Denisse Yanovich, GAI’s managing director, for a presentation on the power of public opinion in shaping climate change policy in Latin America.

Matías Spektor discusses research results
Matías Spektor discusses research results

Spektor began his presentation by highlighting the importance of public opinion in shaping climate policy. It determines how the public will respond to pro-climate actors, the lengths to which skeptics will go to disavow climate change, and the ability of the international community to shape climate policy. Unlike the United States, Europe, and, more recently, India, minimal knowledge exists regarding public opinion on climate change policy in Latin America. This lack of research is something that Spektor wanted to address. 

Spektor and his team conducted a comprehensive regional survey in December 2021 that focused on seven countries responsible for 80% of regional carbon emissions and involved a representative sample of 5,000 individuals. It explored three categories: belief in the existence of climate change, belief in its human causes, and belief in the severity of its consequences. The results of the survey indicate that while there exists a common social consensus in Latin America surrounding the existence of climate change and its human origins, substantial minorities do not agree that the consequences are or will be severe. 

“It’s not trust in scientists, it’s trust in consensus.” - Matias Spektor

Matías Spektor points to a slide highlighting research results
Matías Spektor points to a slide highlighting research results

Climate Skepticism in Latin America

Spektor’s survey found some prominent differences between climate change skepticism in Latin America and the United States. Generally speaking, climate change skeptics in the United States are assumed to be older, politically conservative, and less educated. In Latin America, by contrast, factors such as gender, socioeconomic status, education level, age, ideology, and race do not significantly influence climate change belief in the region. High degrees of individualism and religion—particularly those adhering to the Pentecostal tradition within Christianity—appear to be the primary factors in influencing disbelief in the severity of climate change.

In the majority of cases, Latin Americans perceive climate change as a serious and immediate threat. However, unlike the United States, a key factor shaping risk perception is psychological associations. In this context, Spektor's survey indicates that gender does play a role, as it finds that women tend to worry more than men. This gender difference may be attributed to the disproportionate impact of climate change-related issues, such as the spread of diseases like Zika and dengue, on vulnerable populations for whom women are often caretakers 

“It’s not something that you learn. It is something that you feel.”  - Matias Spektor

Skeptics in Latin America tend to question the severity of climate change, rather than its existence or human origins. They may also challenge the scientific consensus and frame climate policies as threats to individual freedoms, appealing to the value of individualism. To counter these arguments, pro-climate actors need to focus on promoting choice and empowerment. Unless they adopt a language that reinforces individual choice and freedom, it may be challenging to convince skeptics that the consequences of climate change are indeed severe.

Environmental Challenges Facing the Region

Spektor concluded his presentation by shedding light on the environmental challenges facing Latin America, a region rich in biodiversity and unique biomes that has increasingly come under foreign scrutiny for its environmental policies. He delved into how domestic audiences react to this criticism, highlighting four typical responses: remorse, silence, rejection, and defiance. 

In seeking to understand what triggers the defiance of foreign climate criticism, Spektor noted that perceptions of hypocrisy and the looming threat of military force emerge as the most significant factors. Ultimately, to build a more effective international consensus in the fight against climate change, it is imperative that the global community produce clear, well-designed messages that engender constructive dialogue to address one of the most pressing challenges of the twenty-first century.