There is a multitude of studies on public understandings of and concern about climate change in industrialised countries. The majority of these, typically quantitative studies coincide in the conclusion that the general public tends to have a scientifically inaccurate understanding of climate change, and that concern about climate change is usually ambivalent: while worries about climate change are, albeit vague, often widespread, concerns over social issues are often far stronger. A frequent conclusion is thus that the public needs to be educated. However, the standard ‘information deficit’ model of citizens, which assumes that the gap between knowledge and behaviour can be filled with ever more detailed information, is well documented as being both simplistic and inaccurate. At the same time, many policy instruments and awareness campaigns (as well as research projects) implicitly assume that climate change is now a shared concern, and that, due to the strong presence of climate-related issues in the media, there is a shared understanding of the physical principles of climate change. Our study challenges these assumptions and sets out to better understand how the general public conceptualises climate change, with a special focus on the role of household energy use and carbon emissions. We conducted qualitative interviews in five European countries (n=200) that allowed respondents to describe their views in their own terms, avoiding the assumption of ubiquitous worry over climate change and any leading questions. Our analysis draws on the concept of social representations, i.e., socially shared understandings that help individuals to make sense of scientific or political terms such as climate change in relation to their own experience, values and beliefs. We found that many respondents defined climate change very differently from how it is generally portrayed in the media. This means that campaigns that build on presumed knowledge of the public (e.g. using concepts such as “carbon footprint”) are likely to fail, as citizens might not be able to relate to these concepts as intended. Instead, climate change seemed to be only a small part embedded in a larger phenomenon that many respondents expressed great worry about, namely the generally unsustainable way of living in their countries, including their own lifestyles. Many expressed a perceived need for societal change, as resource use (and resource waste) at the current rate was not considered viable long term. This implies that any campaigns designed to engage the public in reducing CO2 emissions should build on their representations of and attitudes towards sustainable energy and resource use in general, rather than focusing on climate change alone. Our findings demonstrated broad similarities in the social representation of energy and consumption and climate change across the five case study countries (UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, the Netherlands and Germany) and thus across Eastern and Western Europe. Findings were also similar across urban and rural locations. This suggests that these findings reflect social representations which are European, rather than country specific.