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.
The aim of limiting global temperature rise to no
more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels has become
policy documents, reports and
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
The vast majority of people surveyed - 93 per cent of
respondents - believe climate change is happening. This tallies
closely with our
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.
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
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.
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
What will climate change look
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'.
(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
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
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).
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
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
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
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