Attitudes towards the environment and refugees go hand in hand throughout Europe

A connection has been established between attitudes towards the environment and refugees. A new study confirms the existence of the phenomenon observed by many, also demonstrating that it can be seen in a number of European countries.

A study based on an extensive quantitative dataset confirms the notion, which has increased in prevalence in recent years, according to which people’s attitudes to the environment and refugees correlate with each other. This is one of the first studies utilising extensive datasets where the connection has been established.

“The more you oppose environmental action, the more you oppose the reception of refugees. Correspondingly, the more you are in favour of environmental action, the more you also favour welcoming refugees,” says Ville Ilmarinen, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Swedish School of Social Science, to sum up the findings.

Much like attitudes concerning the increase of privatisation and the reduction of the income tax are considered a match, attitudes related to the environment and refugees constitute a pair which, however, is not as strong or established as the former.

Ilmarinen is a member of a research group headed by Professor Jan-Erik Lönnqvist, which in a prior study demonstrated that attitudes towards the environment and refugees among candidates in a Finnish municipal election were polarised.

In the present study, the researchers investigated whether a similar connection could be found on the population level in addition to politicians. Previous research has shown that the political elite is well aware of which opinions go together, while ‘regular people’ are not necessarily making the same kind of connections between different issues.

The research dataset included more than 36,000 participants from a total of 20 European countries. Data on the participants’ attitudes and political affiliation was obtained from the European Social Survey, which maps out European values and attitudes by conducting questionnaire surveys. The dataset was compiled in 2016.

Independent of party lines

The study demonstrated that attitudes towards the environment and refugees were associated with each other throughout Europe. However, the consistency of this association did vary slightly from country to country: it was the strongest in the Nordic countries, Germany and Austria, whereas in Estonia the alignment was weaker. The only country included in the comparison where no connection between the attitudes could be statistically inferred was Poland.

Examining the findings from the perspective of political affiliation, the differences between voters can be seen to be highly systematic throughout Europe. Voters of anti-immigrant parties were more opposed to refugees than voters of pro-environmental parties, with the voters of other parties situated in between. Correspondingly, people who voted for anti-immigrant parties were more strongly opposed to environmental action than pro-environmental voters, with other voters again falling in between.

The polarisation of pro-environmental and anti-immigration voters did not come as a surprise to the researchers. What did come as a surprise, however, was the fact that political affiliation did not really affect the closeness of the association between attitudes. In other words, attitudes towards the environment and refugees were interlinked to a degree regardless of political affiliation. The only clear exception to this were a subset of the anti-immigrant voters who fostered more extreme views. In their case, the alignment of the attitudes was exceptionally strong.

A slightly more distinguishable association between attitudes towards the environment and refugees was observed among young people and the more educated.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that there exists another large group of European voters who vote for parties that take a negative stance towards immigration but do not oppose environmental action.

“They may have made their decision solely on the basis of one or the other theme, or on the basis of a third one, such as membership in the EU. In this regard, we have no conclusive findings,” Ilmarinen says.


Read more:

Consistency and Variation in the Associations between Refugee and Environmental Attitudes in European Mass Publics

Further information:

Ville Ilmarinen, postdoctoral researcher,, phone: +358 50 556 0838