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How much climate change is dangerous? Our poll tries to find out what people think

  • 21 Aug 2013, 12:30
  • Ros Donald and Christian Hunt

Polling for Carbon Brief suggests that scientists, policymakers and the public are in very different places when it comes to defining dangerous climate change.

The argument that warming should be kept to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels has become a staple of climate politics. But the polling results show the public puts the threshold for 'dangerous' climate change much higher - an average of around eight degrees of warming.

That's not the only interesting result from the survey, which was carried out for us by polling company Opinium

Two degrees  

The aim of limiting global temperature rise to no more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels has become ubiquitous in policy documents, reports and campaign organisations' communications. 

But the polling suggests that the debate hasn't broken through to significant sections of the public. The poll asked at what level of temperature rise people think climate change will become dangerous, without giving any prompts. The average mean temperature suggested was 8 degrees celsius, increasing to 10 degrees for women. The three most popular choices were 5, 2 and 10 degrees celsius.

A high level of people responded that they didn't know, suggesting that this way of measuring climate change is not one that is widely understood. 

While perhaps appropriate for specialist debate, presenting research as "Four energy policies can keep the 2°C climate goal alive" - as the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook did this year - probably isn't going to mean much to most people. 

Still serious about climate change 

The vast majority of people surveyed - 93 per cent of respondents - believe climate change is happening. This tallies closely with our previous polling

There appears to be some disagreement over what's causing it, however. 56 per cent say climate change is primarily down to human activity, rising to 63 per cent among younger people. But a sizeable minority - 37 per cent - say they think it is mostly caused by natural processes.  

Which Of The Following Statements About Climate Change Do You Agree With Most?

In what may be a useful finding for those who argue that taking a risk-based approach to talking about climate change, however, 68 per cent of all respondents said they believe climate change could be a serious problem and that the government needs to act now.  

Thinking climate change is natural doesn't necessarily equate with thinking we should ignore it - among those who said climate change is mostly caused by natural causes, nearly half still said they want to see action to stop it.   

Act Now Or Later

In other words, most want climate change addressed.  

Support is also high for international action: 76 per cent of all respondents agree the UK "needs to work with other countries to reach international agreements to cut emissions that cause climate change". 

Respondents also appear to be keen for rapid action to avoid the worst effects of a warming climate. 63 per cent believe there is still time to stop dangerous climate change and therefore we should act now to prevent it while we can. Meanwhile, only 21 per cent believe we are unlikely to experience dangerous climate change, while 17 per cent believe it's too late to stop dangerous climate change and we need to prepare for the consequences. 

What will climate change look like? 

We also wanted to test how people think climate change will affect our lives in the UK. News reporting on the subject covers a lot of ground - from predictions of greater flooding to optimistic stories about how the UK could soon enjoy a   Mediterranean climate and the opportunity to grow new crops  like blueberries. But how much of that has informed people's views on what climate change will mean for the UK? 

We gave several suggestions - some negative and some that could be viewed as more positive - which are mentioned with varying degrees of certainty as possible effects of climate change in a government report, ' Adapting to climate change'.

Thinking About How Climate Change Might Affect The UK, How Likely Do You Think Each Of The Following Are In The UK By 2030 (17 Years From Now )?

(Click image to enlarge)

The most popular response was that more intense rain would cause more flooding, with 74 per cent thinking this outcome likely. 72 per cent said they think rising sea levels are likely. 

Positive outcomes seem less prominent in people's minds - just over 30 per cent said they thought climate change would lead to more tourism or fewer people dying from the cold.

Climate change in the media 

We also wanted to see what climate change media stories had stuck with the public. We presented respondents with a list of real and made-up news stories, to test which have received most public attention. The made-up stories were included to try and see how much people were guessing when they answered the question. In this case, the dolphin, China, Arctic ice and both temperature rise stories haven't featured in the media (as far as we know).

Screen Shot 2013-08-21 At 11.39.35.png

The results suggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, that climate change stories don't register very highly in the public consciousness. Although the top three stories have all appeared in newspapers, nearly as many people chose 'none of the above'. 

The story with the highest recall was the Green Deal, which may prove a relief to the Department of Energy and Climate Change given continuing doubts over whether the scheme is going to be a success.

Most surprising, perhaps,  is the finding that only five per cent of respondents have heard of the argument that global warming has stopped or paused, despite a the argument being a perennial favourite in some parts of the media.

Conduct your own analysis - all our tables are available here

Photo credit: Don from USA via Creative Commons licence.  Source for all data: Opinium 2013.

Updated - I have tweaked this to add a bit more detail about how the temperature rise question was carried out, and more information about how people answered - Christian

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