Taking the long view: what’s really driving public opinion on climate change?
This week we have a guest post by Dr Stuart Capstick, a Research Associate at Cardiff University who specialises in explaining long term trends in public attitudes towards climate change. In this blog, Stuart cautions against reading too much into short term changes in opinion polls, and argues that there are some consistent underlying trends that we ought to pay more attention to.
How volatile are people’s views about climate change? Judging from polls over the past two decades, it would appear that we are really rather changeable. In the USA, the extent to which people worry about global warming has risen and fallen several times since the late 1980’s.
Following an anticlimactic summit in Copenhagen, a particularly cold winter and allegations of impropriety in climate science, it seemed in the UK that a new nadir in public engagement was reached in early 2010. A separate study showed that between 2005 and 2010, belief that climate change was even happening fell by thirteen percentage points in Britain. These findings and others have contributed to concerns that public scepticism and denial have become widespread and pernicious forces.
Perhaps it is surprising then that by 2011, a large sample cross-European study found climate change was now seen as the second most serious problem facing the world – even more so than country’s (still faltering) economies and to a greater extent than the previous survey from 2009. Although opinion is polarised in the USA, recent survey work shows that here, too, levels of concern have rebounded of late.
Each of these factors – as well as more complex social processes – likely play their part in influencing findings obtained. Nevertheless, a focus on the ebb and flow of public opinion misses a crucial point: that which has remained consistent about the ways we as members of society understand and respond to climate change.
Consistency over time in UK public understanding
One of the most striking things about a recent analysis I carried out of views about climate change dating from 1997 to 2010, were the extensive similarities over these years in how people spoke about the subject.
Despite taking part in unrelated research projects in different places and at different times, public participants expressed their views in often very predictable and patterned ways.
Ideas about a constantly changing natural world, and of climate science being contested and uncertain, were frequently invoked to argue against the significance of human influence on the climate. Conversely, a range of informal and everyday evidence – particularly concerning changes to the weather and seasonality, though not limited to these – was regularly applied to attest that the climate had perceptibly altered.
In the social and personal domain, too, climate change is interpreted in ways that have changed little over time. That we are faced with a complex social dilemma on multiple scales is something about which most people are keenly aware, as indeed is the notion that climate change is connected to high levels of consumption and contemporary ways of living.
Responsibility for action is consistently ascribed to government, not least because climate change is recognised as a collective problem in which structural aspects (such as transport systems and pricing) are important. There is, nevertheless, seen to be a personal and moral obligation to help address climate change, even if this is not always acted upon. Indeed, the ethical dimension of climate change – regarding our duties to future generations and for social justice – is a persistent theme over time.
Implications for communication
It seems to me that it is these social and personal perspectives that present the most important challenges for communication. There is in some senses an ‘answer’ to the view that climate change is attributable to long-term natural cycles, or that climate science is uncertain – albeit one that requires to be communicated with great care. However, views about responsibility and the ways society operates can always be disputed, and are connected to long-standing cultural questions applicable to many areas of life.
Just as one of my 2010 research participants was able to argue that climate change was a lost cause because “there’s just too many people and it’s too much of a mess to sort out”, another could express the opinion that action was indeed possible because “the essence of humanity is that we can cooperate with each other”. At a personal level, assertions abound of the sort that “whether I sort my glass from my cardboard doesn’t have much effect on the melting of the ice caps” – and yet, others could argue that “I don’t think anybody likes to think of themselves as nothing but a consumer who just sits there, using everything up” or that “whatever you do you can do it with an ethical mindset”.
If communicators are to enter into these sorts of conversations this may open up wide-ranging debates which have been wrestled over for many years and to which there are no easy answers. They are, however, topics with which audiences are likely to engage, and which are relevant to people’s life experiences – perhaps then, exactly the types of conversation we ought to be having?
Past and future trends in public perspectives
My study did find some changes in peoples’ perspectives between years – examples of note include recent evidence of ‘fatigue’ and a slight increase in scepticism. At the same time, personal action on climate change is also coming increasingly to be seen as normal and everyday – as has been noted elsewhere.
These represent subtle shifts in emphasis and lifestyles rather than profound changes in underlying interpretations, however. This should not be entirely surprising: the way people think about society and the way we make sense of the natural world is unlikely to alter fundamentally in any culture, except over long time periods.
The relative importance of climate change at any particular point in time will vary according to contemporary events, and it can be anticipated that further peaks and troughs will be seen in the future. Perhaps the publication of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and associated media attention will prompt an uptick in interest and concern. It might be that ongoing economic problems in Europe will send climate change further down people’s agendas.
Publics in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have increasingly seen climate change as a risk in recent years, and may continue to do so.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, that beneath the seemingly choppy surface of public opinion is a more durable set of ideas that guide and constrain people’s interpretations. Whilst they may be useful indicators, levels of ‘concern’ or ‘scepticism’ expressed by people at any given moment are thus only part of the story. This may be worth remembering the next time we are confronted with a headline announcing that the public has, yet again, changed its mind on climate change. Could it be that we are not so fickle after all?
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