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Mat Hope

Mat Hope

19.09.2013 | 4:20pm
Public opinionPoll appears to show growth in climate skepticism – but what kind is it?
PUBLIC OPINION | September 19. 2013. 16:20
Poll appears to show growth in climate skepticism – but what kind is it?

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 answers.

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:

UKERC trend Q

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:

UKERC poll, causes

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 manmade.

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 responses.

‘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.

CB poll climate causes

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 suggest.

Communicating skepticism

That aside, UKERC’s poll does identify a growing number of climate skeptics in all of these categories compared to a year ago.

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 of possibilities.

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 change.

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