Each article on Climate Sock looks at a particular aspect of public attitudes towards the environment: energy sources, aviation, political issues, and so on. The aim is to be thorough – but it means that new visitors site have to work through quite a few posts to get to the basic questions about what people think about the environment.
The aim of this page is to provide a quick overview of what we’ve seen about public attitudes to the environment. As with the rest of the site, it’s quite UK-focused. I bring in global comparisons when I can, and sometimes get geekily enthusiastic about elections around the world. But for now, most of the data I have is on the UK, so this is a little parochial.
Most people think man-made global warming is a reality
There’s lots of different ways of asking the question to test agreement with climate science about man-made global warming – and each way produces a slightly different result. But there’s enough consistency between the results to say that the UK population splits roughly into three groups. A third think global warming is really serious and needs radical action now; a third think it’s real and quite bad, but not absolutely in need of urgent attention; and a third either think it’s not man-made or it’s not happening at all.
One example of this is in a YouGov poll from May ’10:
The proportions who are concerned (or not) about climate change has moved a little over time, but not decisively in either direction. The most important drivers of these movements appear to be the level of coverage of global warming in the media (e.g. around the launch of the Stern report); connections between extreme weather and global warming; connections between cold weather and global warming not being a reality; and, arguably, public challenges to climate science (though this would be indirect at most as relatively few were aware of either ‘Climategate’ or ‘Glaciergate’).
Belief in man-made global warming isn’t everything
The debate about how many people think man-made global warming is a reality may be interesting, but it can also be a bit of a distraction. A chart I use a lot is this, taken from an Angus Reid poll, which 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:
So it looks like many people will assert their rejection of the science of man-made global warming, but at the same time still welcome action to tackle the problem. This to me is really strong evidence that terms like ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’, and even ‘the environment’ will turn large parts of the population against any conversation about tackling global warming.
It’s not a good idea for politicians to be the only people talking about climate change
Most of what the public wants to be done to tackle climate change is the kind of thing that needs a government to be involved. The exact details again depend on the question, but an HSBC Climate Confidence Monitor poll in ’08 showed that people want the government to prioritise using renewable energy sources, halting deforestation, and limiting CO2 emissions.
But there’s also a paradox here. While people want governments to be doing things about global warming, they also don’t trust politicians to take the lead. A Mori poll in Jan ’10 showed widespread cynicism about politicians’ motives, with more people thinking that they only talk about global warming to provide an excuse to raise taxes, or to distract from other issues:
So: most people think man-made global warming is a real issue that requires attention. Even more will agree to action to reduce emissions or increase energy efficiency if it’s not framed in terms of global warming, climate change, or the environment. But having politicians as the main (or only) prominent group advocating action is a hindrance to action, particularly when there is any room for doubt about their motives – which there usually is.