Is keeping the lights on more important than stopping climate change?

Posted in Attitudes, Energy sources on July 24th, 2011 by leo – 3 Comments

How far people are willing to take personal action to prevent climate change is one of the big policy questions. When considering a major global issue like climate change, many people will consider that they cannot have an impact, and that they should leave it to the government, if indeed they think it’s worth tackling at all.

A new poll by ComRes tackles this question. Having been commissioned by Centrica, its focus is on domestic energy usage, and it suggests a tension between what people are doing now and what they might be willing to do in the future.

According to the poll, three quarters of UK adults have recently tried to reduce the amount of gas and electricity they use. The reasons given for these reductions are interesting:

That price should be top isn’t surprising, but I’m struck that nearly twice as many say they reduced their energy use to help the environment as say they did so to protect the UK’s energy supply.

This surprised me a little because polling I’ve seen in the past has shown that, as reasons for energy conservation, energy security is generally more compelling than climate change.

And we do in fact see something similar in a later question in this poll.

When we move away from what people are doing, and onto what they want the government to do, we get a different picture:

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Have Australians stopped caring about climate change?

Posted in Attitudes, Australia on July 9th, 2011 by leo – Be the first to comment

The latest annual poll by the Australian thinktank, the Lowy Institute, suggests a dramatic fall in concern about climate change. It’s usually a good rule that the more interesting a poll, is the less likely it is to be a good representation of public opinion, and the new Lowry poll has indeed been challenged.

But while some of the criticisms of the poll seem fair, I suggest that dismissing it would be a mistake.

At the heart of the debate is data that appear to suggest that Australians’ concern about climate change has plummeted in recent years. The same question has been used in the annual polls for several years, allowing a comparison of attitudes over time.

The resulting chart is this:

Which immediately suggests a dramatic fall in concern about climate change: from nearly 7 in 10 wanting action even at significant cost in 2006, to only 4 in 10 saying the same now.

The main challenge to the data has been on the basis of the structure of the question. Joseph Reser at Griffith University, has argued both that the length of the questions is a problem, and that the answer choices “contain multiple and emotional button-pressing matters and language”.

The result, he argues, is that the poll fails to measure the public’s understanding or perceptions of risk in an issue as complex as climate change. Significantly, it also appears to show a lower level of concern than is identified in other polls that individually examine different aspects of attitudes to the issue.

All of this seems fair. The question wording is indeed long, and it does contain some emotive language. But I don’t think that makes the result any less interesting or important.

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Greenpeace, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Fathers 4 Justice

Posted in Attitudes on June 15th, 2011 by leo – 7 Comments

Some data tables need very little introduction.

One such appears in the Ashcroft poll, from a question about attitudes towards various NGOs. For clarity’s sake, I’ve grouped the responses into ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ in the table below:

You may draw your own conclusions, but here are a few of mine.

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What can we learn from the latest claim of climate fatigue?

Posted in Attitudes, International on April 27th, 2011 by leo – 1 Comment

A new set of international data has just come out from Mori and prompted the Daily Mail to claim that “‘Britons are suffering from ‘global warming fatigue’”.

For loyal Mail readers, this won’t come as much of a surprise. A couple of months ago the Mail reported a poll that found agreement with climate science in the UK to be lower now than it’s been at any point since the polling began in 2006.

But then for those who read other papers, especially the Guardian, there’s been plenty to suggest that agreement with climate science is still high, and desire for action remains strong. If anything, we might have thought that it’s been growing in recent months.

So are the Mail twisting the facts to fit their expectations, or are they onto something?

In his analysis, Neil at Carbon Brief makes several valid criticisms of the Mail’s interpretation.

The poll asked respondents to identify their top three most important environmental issues, out of a list of 15. This is a long list to choose from, yet “global warming/climate change” was fourth in the UK (on 25%), itself ahead of other urgent and tangible issues like flooding and food supply.

A second point Neil makes is that respondents were asked about environmental issues facing their country “today”. So they are prompted to think both locally and also in terms of issues that are already having an impact. Many people might think that climate change will be an immense crisis in the future, but that its impact is so far relatively unimportant.

In this context perhaps it isn’t surprising that, for example, Indians expressed much greater relative concern about climate change (55% in India) than people in the UK did, since India is already experiencing impacts of climate change, with loss of water supply and flooding of low-lying islands in the Sunderbans. (That said, I’m still a bit surprised with how high this is in India. Perhaps the explanation is in the sample frame: the pollsters only seem to have found 16 people with low levels of education in India: 2% of the sample. They had to weight this up to 41% of the sample to fit with national demographics. I wonder how representative those 16 people really were of national attitudes to climate change among people with lower levels of education.)

To Neil’s points, we could add the criticism that a claim of ‘global warming fatigue’ would require a change in attitudes. This poll doesn’t purport to show any change in attitudes.

So there are good reasons to be wary about the Mail’s analysis.

But for all that, we shouldn’t dismiss entirely the conclusions.

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Have we turned a corner?

Posted in Attitudes, U.S. on March 2nd, 2011 by leo – Be the first to comment

It’s not so long since I argued that the economy was bringing down concern about the environment (and, err, that article hasn’t exactly been buried in a recent deluge of posts). The data indicated that, across a range of countries, people were becoming less worried about climate change (and other environmental issues) at around the same time that national GDPs were falling.

This suggested an explanation for the recent fall in concern about climate change, which was different from those explanations we’ve seen before (like challenges to climate science, or recent cold winters). Intuitively this explanations seems more convincing since it doesn’t assume that people spend much time pontificating about climate change, as the other explanations do. In fact, it essentially assumes the opposite, which is probably reasonable.

But the last two climate polls I’ve seen suggest that maybe things have started to change. We’ve already seen that the Guardian’s recent ICM poll found that 83% think that climate change is a threat now or will be in the future – crucially, that’s the same as they found in August ’09. This marked a change from other recent polls, which all seemed to point to some fall in concern about climate change that occurred after August ’09.

Perhaps opinion had indeed started to shift. Or alternatively that poll could have been an outlier. Without another poll to back it up, it was hard to tell (this is of course the problem for media outlets when they’re reporting their own expensively bought poll: any single poll can be an outlier, and indeed the more exciting and headline-friendly a poll is, the more likely it is to be an outlier. Sites like 538 and UK Polling Report, which report polls from across the firms, are a good way of sense-checking any individual poll).

My hesitancy about the poll still stands, but another one lends a little straw in the wind. A new Economist/YouGov poll in the US has found a fairly similar result – that over the last year, agreement that global warming is happening has remained consistent:

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What do we do when two good polls say opposite things?

Posted in Attitudes, Climategate, Media on January 31st, 2011 by leo – 7 Comments

Crikey.  You wait months for fresh data and then two big ones come at once.  And such is life, they say pretty much opposite things. I’ll get to some proper analysis later, but just for now some first thoughts.

Firstly, about the polls. There’s one in the Guardian that apparently shows concern about climate change to be at the same level now as it was in August ’09, i.e. before the UEA emails, the cold winters, Copenhagen, and the relentless stories about how no-one believes in climate change any more.

Then, there’s one in the Mail – which is actually reporting ONS data from August last year – that shows that agreement with climate science is lower now than it’s been at any point since ’06 (when the figures begin).

So, my reactions:

This isn’t a case of the Guardian being climate warriors and the Mail being climate deniers

As far as I can see, both are reporting the data accurately. There’s no apparent cherry picking, and it looks like the comparisons with previous polls are fair. The Guardian’s reporting stands out for linking directly to both data sets, which I don’t remember ever seeing before – round of applause for Damian Carrington – but the Mail’s doesn’t say anything that I don’t think is justifiable (though it took quite a while to find the data – any reason they couldn’t link to it?).

The questions are different and may not be measuring the same phenomenon

I’ve been saying for a while that the decrease in people saying they’re absolutely convinced that the climate is changing/that global warming is a very big problem may be a factor of the way the ‘debate’ between climate warriors and deniers is being conducted. It’s become so vitriolic that many people are heading for the middle ground, on the assumption that both sides are partly right (or because they’re just sick of it).

So a question like ONS’s, whose answer choices are “very convinced/fairly convinced/not very convinced/not at all convinced/don’t know” would tend to lose people from the extremes of the scale to the middle (as happens to an extent: 45% in ’06 to 41% now).

In contrast, the Guardian’s question was on a discrete scale and didn’t present the contrast between firm opinion vs middle ground (climate change already a threat / will be a threat in the future / not a threat / don’t know). Maybe as a result, there’s less of an effect from the way the debate is being conducted and reported.

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Apparently it really is the economy, stupid

Posted in Attitudes, Climategate, International on January 20th, 2011 by leo – 4 Comments

GlobeScan have recently been trailing this year’s results for their annual global tracker, which has prompted a bit of a geekout in Climatesockland.  These guys at GlobeScan seriously mean business with their tracker: they’re now up to 27 countries, including some places where fieldwork for a nationally representative poll takes quite a bit of organising (I dread to think how you would do a truly nationally representative poll in Indonesia for example, but so they claim to have done).

The good news, poll fans, is that those nice people at GlobeScan have sent me some of the data that they hadn’t previously published (unlike the PR polls that are so irritatingly reported without any published data to back them up, this was a piece of private polling, so GlobeScan weren’t governed by the rules of the British Polling Council to release the data).

And from even this relatively small bit of data, we see something interesting:

That looks to me like a significant fall in concern about climate change between ’09 and ’10 that seems to be felt across the world.

This would seem to challenge the usual explanations for the fall in the UK of concern about climate change between late ’09 and early ’10. A particularly cold winter can’t possibly be the explanation for this given that ’10 seems to have been one of the hottest years on record globally.

Similarly, it’s very hard to believe that the UEA emails (and other challenges to climate science) made enough of a splash in all of these countries to have driven these changes.

If we go back to earlier data, and look at changes from ’07 to ’10, we see a slightly different picture:

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New overview page

Posted in Attitudes on November 21st, 2010 by leo – 11 Comments

First-time visitors here might find it useful to check out the new overview page, which gives a quick summary of some of the main issues that I’ve previously written about on Climate Sock.

Is it wrong to campaign on climate change?

Posted in Attitudes, Communications on November 8th, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

There’s a debate that’s just resurfaced about the value of public campaigns about climate change. Roughly speaking, one side is arguing that the only way to get people to take long-term sustainable action on climate change is to persuade them that it’s a really important issue, and if they don’t take action, very bad things will happen to the world’s climate, and this will make life miserable for a lot of people.

The other side says that even though these conclusions about climate change may be true, there’s no chance that everyone (or even nearly everyone) will go along with this, and it makes far more sense to persuade most people to adopt low-carbon behaviours for reasons not to do with climate change – usually because it’s cheaper, or reduces the need to rely on nefarious foreign places for energy supplies.

The latest round of this argument has come in the November edition of the Campaign Strategy newsletter, which takes issue with the recent Common Cause report, published by WWF in partnership with others. Roughly speaking, Common Cause takes the second view, and Campaign Strategy the first.

The Campaign Strategy authors draw on a New York Times article about energy efficiency in Kansas (well worth reading), to make the point that in areas where climate change disbelief is high, behaviour change is best framed in terms of other benefits, rather than in terms of the environment. The article even suggests that using fear of climate change as a motive for adopting low-carbon behaviours may in fact hinder action for some people. The environment has become so politicised as a topic, some will actively reject any argument in which it is mentioned.

This chimes with some of what we’ve seen in previous data. Earlier this year, an Angus Reid poll showed that, of those who had said they thought global warming was an unproven theory, nearly two thirds were still satisfied with attempts to cut worldwide emissions:

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There may be trouble ahead

Posted in Attitudes, Media on October 24th, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

It looks like we’ve had the starting pistol for the biannual ritual of the season’s change justifying a spate of articles predicting the next few months’ weather. It’s always fun for us Brits, though not exactly harmless. Misreporting of a Met Office’s 2009 seasonal forecast – as a ‘barbecue summer’ – somehow led to serious suggestion that it should be sold off, despite its record as one of world’s most accurate forecasting bodies.

Now this autumn, the Guardian has pitched in with a story about the early arrival of some Bewick’s swans to the UK. Apparently their early departure from Siberia, tied with a cold forecast for the week ahead, was enough to justify an article predicting a cold winter ahead.

Without wanting to take the article too seriously (it is, after all, only a well-executed piece of PR by the Slimbridge Wetland Centre), the prospect of a cold winter should be a worry for anyone campaigning on climate change. Last year, we saw the collapse of talks in Copenhagen; Climategate; Glaciergate (the stories don’t need to be true to have been reported as damaging climate science) – and the coldest winter in the UK for 31 years. Of these, the weather may well have done the most to influence public concern about climate change.

The evidence for this is circumstantial because no-one asked the right questions, but seems fairly strong. A poll in December ’09, when the stories about UEA emails were at their peak, showed no significant movement in agreement with climate science. Yet, another poll, in January ’10, when the UEA stories had died down, but the cold weather was at its most severe, showed a significant drop in agreement that climate change was a reality (though I think methodological problems with this latter poll seriously weaken it). In the other direction, we’ve also seen that confidence in climate science increases when heatwaves or storms cause major disruption, and the media attribute this weather to climate change.

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