Are the British really bored of climate change?
"Do you have 'global warming fatigue'? Just 25% of Britons think
climate change is the most important environmental issue." That's
Daily Mail headlined its report, on Tuesday, of an
Ipsos Mori opinion poll on environmental concern.
Ecologist report of the survey was titled, "Only a quarter of
Britons concerned about climate change."
However, as with most opinion polls (and with many newspaper
reports), the reality is a little more complicated than the
full poll results [pdf] show that respondents were asked to
choose from a list of 15 the three most important environmental
issues facing their country.
The question, in full, read: "In your view, what are the three
most important environmental issues facing [your country] today?
That is, the top environmental issues you feel should receive the
greatest attention from your local leaders?"
In Britain, "Global warming/climate change" came fourth out of
15, with 25% of respondents putting the issue in their top three.
First was "Future energy sources and supplies" at 50%, second,
"Dealing with the amount of waste we generate" with 48% and third
"Overpopulation" with 41%.
Climate change was rated ahead of food supply, water pollution,
resource depletion and flooding, amongst others.
The Mail report made much of the comparison with other
countries. British concern about climate change came in the bottom
third (not "third last" as the Mail inaccurately stated) of 24
In contrast, respondents in Asian countries seemed much more
worried by climate change. In India, South Korea and Japan, 50% of
respondents put it in their top three.
But, this was a survey that specifically asked people about
theirlocalenvironmental priorities and concerns. People answering a
question like this are presumably therefore more likely to think
about their immediate, recent, local experience than the science of
the climate debate and predictions of future
The director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change made the
The Ecologist that the different reactions may be due in part
to the countries' susceptibility to climate change:
'India has much less resilience to
climate change and less money for adaptation and mitigation. They
have an extremely large population in coastal cities which are
sensitive to rising sea levels,' says Professor Corrine Le Quere,
director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. 'Bangladesh is
also the neighbouring country which is very sensitive to rising sea
levels so they might have immigration coming from Bangladesh.'
This chimes with recent research showing that direct experience
of extreme weather events increases awareness of climate
In the UK, climate change still seems like an abstract theory to
many people, whereas the problem of energy supply is something we
understand and see the effects of on our lives everyday. But this
is not a pattern which is universally applicable.
So while 50% of British people polled put "future energy source
and supply" in their top three concerns, in Saudi Arabia it was,
unsurprisingly, only 19% and in Russia only 7%. Air pollution is a
concern for 41% in China but only 12% in Britain. And,
deforestation is seen as a priority issue by 53% of Brazilians but
only 3% of Saudis.
It should be remembered that opinion polling can produce
different and conflicting conclusions, depending on what questions
are asked and how.
last poll of British attitudes to climate change, in January
2010, at the height of "Climategate" found 91% of British people
believed climate change was a reality; only 10% believed global
warming is caused by natural forces; 87% believed people will
become more concerned about climate change in the future; and 49%
that it is endangering the whole of life on Earth.
Guardian/ICM poll in January 2011 found 83% agreed that climate
change poses an imminent or current threat with just 14% saying it
poses no threat at all; the survey found 68% believed humans cause
There are, though, some lessons those interested in climate
change can take from this poll. If climate campaigners and
communicators want to persuade the public to care more about
climate change, perhaps they need to find ways of demonstrating the
impact it is having and will have on their lives here and now -
Ipsos MORI say in their commentary, "link the impacts with
risks the public care about, that is, our economic prosperity and
that of our children."