A starting point

As overviews of UK public attitudes and behaviours towards climate change go, MORI’s 2007 Tipping Point report is a handy place to start.

It covers three areas: attitudes to climate change; attitudes to actors and agencies; and behaviours related to climate change. So its scope is pretty broad, and while it inevitably draws heavily on MORI data, it does bring in conclusions and results from other sources. MORI also issued an update of a few of their numbers last year, based on some May ’08 fieldwork.

It’s well worth having a look through the full report, but if you’re a bit pushed for time, here are some of the more interesting nuggets:

  • Asking directly about perceptions and importance of climate change shows there to be three groups in the population. Something like 40% are pretty well convinced that it’s happening and that it’s a serious problem. Around 15-20% are at the other extreme: convinced that it’s not a real issue. The remaining 2 in 5 are in play: sitting on the fence or in the ‘tend to agree’ column.
  • Cutting across these groups, there’s a perception that “scientific experts” (those eggheads in their white coats) still question whether humans are contributing to climate change. In the ’08 update, 60% agreed – compared with only 22% disagreeing. So interestingly it looks like there are some who have doubts about scientific consensus, but are still convinced climate change is a serious problem.
  • Startlingly, the top answer to the question “which, if any, of the following do you think will have the most impact on you personally if climate change were successfully tackled?”, is “a cleaner atmosphere”. Nearly 3 in 5 choose this: twice as many as opt for the next most popular options, “greater stability and security for my children”, and “less severe weather”. This suggests to me that greenhouse gas emissions are being seen as an environmental problem in their own right, with less widespread recognition of the tangible problems associated with climate change.
  • The report speculates that lower-cost behaviours like recycling may be blocking more meaningful climate change behaviours. To quote, “the public – when asked to identify what actions they could take that would have the most impact on climate change – do not identify those with the larger carbon footprint. … [M]ost identify recycling. In contrast, those behaviours with larger CO2 implications – such as flying on holiday less – are actually at the wrong end of the scale. … [I]ndividuals may be using recycling as a means of discharging their responsibility to undertake wider changes in lifestyle”.

There’s plenty of fodder for the green geek there, so do take the time to browse through when you have a chance. Nevertheless, there are a few questions left hanging by the report. The most obvious is that the main report is over two years old. Even with the ’08 update, there’s a “what happened next” issue: what has changed since the last fieldwork 18 months ago?

But there’s also an issue with the specific dates of the original fieldwork that most of the report is based on: August ’06 and June ’07. These look roughly to correspond with the beginning and end of the surge of media coverage around Stern, the IPCC report, and Cameron’s green(wash?)ing of the Tories. So we might speculate that the numbers interested in and concerned about climate change in the report are unusually high. In fact, only 30% in the ’08 update say they are very concerned– 14% lower than in the August ’06 data.

The dividing of the population into the three groups mentioned above feels superficial. Indeed, the report acknowledges that a segmentation analysis report like Defra’s Framework for Pro-Environment Behaviour (thoughts on which to come) is a more nuanced way of understanding how different parts of the population behave.

Finally, the MORI data aren’t that convincing in terms of actions people would be willing to take. As we’ve seen, the numbers were probably at a peak. The polls reflect the predictable conflict between a feeling that something should be done, and the individual willingness to make meaningful sacrifices. What they don’t do is give us the answers about what is possible – though the authors do acknowledge, in the time-honoured cry of the report writer, that more research is needed.

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