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Are the British really bored of climate change?

  • 21 Apr 2011, 11:00
  • Neil

"Do you have 'global warming fatigue'? Just 25% of Britons think climate change is the most important environmental issue." That's how the Daily Mail headlined its report, on Tuesday, of an Ipsos Mori opinion poll on environmental concern.

And 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 headlines suggest.

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 countries surveyed.

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 consequences. 

The director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change made the point in 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 change.

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.

Ipsos MORI's 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.

Similarly, a 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 climate change.

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 - and, as 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."

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