Poll appears to show growth in climate skepticism - but what kind is it?
- 19 Sep 2013, 16:20
- Mat Hope
Credit: The Italian Voice
Humans are complicated beings. Nowhere is this
more obvious than when examining polling results, and sometimes
pollsters' questions don't bring out the most coherent
This morning, the
Times declared that the UK public is becoming increasingly
climate skeptic. So what insights does the polling offer?
Climate skepticism quadrupling
The Times reports the results of a new poll from the
UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), and suggests the proportion
of people in the UK who don't think the world's climate is changing
has more than quadrupled since 2005.
The figure comes from this table:
When asked the question, 19 per cent of 2013's respondents said
they don't think the climate is changing, compared to four per cent
in 2005. In fact, that's closer to a quintupling of climate
skeptics since 2005 - not just a quadrupling. It's also an eight
per cent increase on last year.
Look further down UKERC's poll, however, and you find something
puzzling. When people are asked what they think the causes of
climate change are, only two per cent agree there is "no such
thing" as climate change - as this table shows:
This is the same group of people answering. And in the latter
question, 91 per cent of the respondents believe climate change is
happening, with varying opinions as to what degree it is natural or
So how can there be such variation between questions? It's all
down to how the question is asked, and what people are skeptical
about, the poll's authors say.
Climate skepticism types
The lead author of the UKERC study, Cardiff University's Dr
Wouter Poortinga, suggests there are different types of climate
skeptics - and different questions prompt different kinds of
'Trend' skeptics are those who when asked a straight questions
about whether climate change is occurring, will say no (as featured
in the Times headline). 'Attribution' skeptics are those who, when
asked what the cause of climate change is, maintain that the
question is irrelevant because it isn't happening. This is the
smaller two per cent of the second question.
Poortinga says questions that address climate trends -
such as the one the Times highlights - tend to get more negative
responses than questions that address causes or impacts. This may
be because people's views on climatic trends are partly based on
their direct experience. This is a problem when trying to gauge
opinion on whether climate change is happening or not, as rarely is
it immediately obvious one way or the other.
In contrast, questions about the causes and seriousness of
climate change tend to get fewer people doubting its existence.
When people are asked about climate change causes, the vast
majority say they think it is caused by human activity, natural
processes, or a combination of both.
In fact, the two per cent that continue to say climate change
isn't happening at all when asked about causes in the UKERC poll is
actually less than other polls: for example, four per cent in a
government poll, compared to seven per cent in
polling Carbon Brief carried out in August (as the graph below
shows). This variation in itself may be to do with the way some of
the poll's other questions influenced responses.
Likewise, UKERC's poll found that fewer people said they are
completely unconcerned about the impacts of climate change than
other polls - seven per cent. That's compared to 10 per cent in the
government's poll and 16 per cent in our polling.
So while UKERC's poll does indicate a growth in climate
skepticism - as the Times reports - understanding who is skeptical
and about precisely what is more complicated, the authors
That aside, UKERC's poll does identify a growing number of
climate skeptics in all of these categories compared to a year
Poortinga says media coverage is partially responsible, with
stories questioning the causes, impacts and existence of climate
change eroding public opinion. A
book launched yesterday by the Reuters Institute for the Study
of Journalism said the reporting of scientific uncertainty, for
example, can create the impression of ignorance rather than a range
UKERC's poll suggests there's an opportunity for
climate communicators to bridge the gap in understanding between
scientists, the media, and public - helping people make sense of
the wide variety of information they receive on climate