Public perceptions of climate change
Over the past decade, public opinion about climate change has become increasingly well documented. Awareness about climate change is very high, and a number of surveys have shown that the British, European and North American member of the public express substantial concern about it.
For example, a Eurobarometer survey in 2007 found that around 90% of British citizens were concerned about climate change (Eurobarometer, 2007). However, climate change continues to be a low priority issue for most people when contrasted with other societal issues such as the economy, education, or the threat of terrorism (Upham et al., 2009), and in recent years the level of reported concern about climate change has fallen somewhat, accompanied by an increase in the number of people expressing uncertainty about the reality of human influence on the climate (BBC, 2010; Leiserowitz et al., 2010; Pew Research Centre, 2009; Whitmarsh, 2011).
Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011) produced this useful graph showing US perceptions of whether people think that most climate scientists agree that climate change is happening, as measured by Gallup polls over a period of more than ten years. Between 1998–2006, people became more sure that scientists agreed that climate change was happening, but more recently the trend has been towards greater uncertainty.
Although the reasons for this decline in public confidence in climate change science are complex, and not easy to discern from opinion poll data, a recent report on global attitudes to climate change offered this explanation:
“There are many possible reasons for declines in concern about climate change…immediate worries such as job security, local school quality, crime and economic well-being have all diminished media attention for climate stories in the past two years. In the face of other pressing concerns, a public “caring capacity” for climate change has been tested…Without continued attention paid to global warming/climate change in the media, such concerns may have faded from the collective public conscience” (Nielson, 2011).
However, there has not been the ‘collapse’ in public opinion that some commentators have suggested. A Cardiff University survey in the UK during early 2010 (Spence et al, 2010) found that a majority of people supported the use of tax revenue to fund low-carbon policies such as investment in renewables (68%) and said they are willing to reduce the amount of energy they use in order to tackle climate change (65%). So although there is no escaping the fact that there is a major disparity between the level of certainty expressed by climate scientists and by the general public about the basic facts of climate change, a considerable level of support for policies to tackle climate change remains.
Beyond basic findings about levels of concern, awareness and belief in human impact on the climate, some recent studies have attempted to delve deeper into public attitudes about climate change. A paper by Wouter Poortinga and his colleagues (Poortinga et al, 2011) found that when people express uncertainty about climate change, they are often talking about quite different things. Although some people challenge the cause of climate change, a greater number are unsure about the impacts – which is actually where much greater uncertainty exists among scientists.
Perhaps inevitably, evidence on public attitudes tends to focus on European and North American members of the public. However, a recent global poll of attitudes to climate change and sustainability issues more generally presented a complex international picture. Taking all nations together, 69% of the citizens in 51 nations are concerned about climate change. However, in the US, only 48% are concerned compared to 51% in 2009 and 62% in 2007, while in China levels of concern have also reduced from 77% in 2009 to 64% in 2011. The most concerned region of the world was Latin America (90%), in India, concern about global warming is at 86% (a rise from 80% in 2007), and in Europe concern has risen from 58% to 68% since 2009.
Polls on climate change public opinion emerge all the time – a useful and up-to-date summary of general trends up to 2011 is provided by Nick Pidgeon in a report for the UK Government’s Foresight Office (Pidgeon, 2011), and two of the best sources for keeping up to date with recent developments are the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the Pew Research Centre.
British Broadcasting Corporation. (2010). BBC climate change poll – February 2010. Available from http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/05_02_10climatechange.pdf
Eurobarometer (2007). Attitudes on issues related to EU Energy Policy – Analytic report (Flash Eurobarometer 206a). Europe: European Commission.
Gallup (2009). Increased Number Think Global Warming Is “Exaggerated”. http://www.gallup.com/poll/116590/increased-number-think-global-warming-exaggerated.aspx
Leiserowitz, A.,Maibach,E.,Roser-Renouf,C.,Smith,N. (2010).Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in June 2010. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://environment.yale.edu/ climate/files/ClimateBeliefsJune2010.pdf
Lorenzoni, I., Pidgeon, N.F. (2006). Public views on climate change: European and USA perspectives. Climatic Change 77, 73–95.
Neilsen (2011). Sustainable Efforts & Environmental Concerns around the World. Available at www.nielsen.com
Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press. (2009). Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming.
Pidgeon, N. (2011). Public Understanding of and Attitudes Towards Climate Change (Report 5: International Dimensions of Climate Change). UK Government Foresight Office.
Pidgeon, N.F and Fischhoff, B. (2011) The role of social and decision sciences in communicating uncertain climate risks. Nature Climate Change. 1, 35–41.
Poortinga, W., Spence, A., Whitmarsh, L. Capstick, S. & Pidgeon, N.F. (2011). Uncertain climate: An investigation into public scepticism about anthropogenic climate change. Global Environmental Change 21 (3) 1015–1024.
Spence, A., Venables, D., Pidgeon, N., Poortinga, W. and Demski, C., (2010). Public Perceptions of Climate Change and Energy Futures in Britain: Summary Findings of a Survey Conducted in January-March 2010. Technical Report (Understanding Risk Working Paper 10–01). Cardiff: School of Psychology.
Upham, P., Whitmarsh, L., Poortinga, W., Purdam, K., Darnton, A., McLachlan, C. & Devine-Wright, P. (2009) Public Attitudes to Environmental Change: a selective review of theory and practice. A research synthesis for the Living with Environmental Change Programme, Research Councils UK.
Whitmarsh, L. (2011). Scepticism and uncertainty about climate change: dimensions, determinants and change over time. Global Environmental Change, 21, 690–700.
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- Communicating climate change
- Communicating climate science
- Encouraging sustainable behaviour
- Visual communication of climate change
- Making climate science simple & understandable
- Communicating uncertainty in climate science
- Why are people still sceptical about climate change?
- Social norms & social networks
- Using scare tactics: does it work?
- Resources for communicating climate change
- Breaking bad habits & creating good ones
- How to go beyond social marketing
- Language: words & phrases
- Values & frames
- Uncertainty & the IPCC
- Public perceptions of climate change
- How is the UK government promoting sustainable behaviour?
- Climate change scepticism and the media