People need to change their behaviours if we are to have any chance of addressing the climate crisis – the greatest challenge facing humankind. But if the British people are confused or ambivalent about climate change, they are less likely to change.
It could be bad news for the Liberal Democrats too. Populus has found that climate change is our strongest issue with the voters. Some say that it should be a cornerstone of our European Parliament election campaign in 2009. Many of our key policy measures for climate change aim to persuade and incentivise people to change their behaviours.
Here’s a quick summary of how I see the conventional wisdom about public attitudes to climate change and the measures needed to tackle it. The British public are very aware and very concerned about climate change but this concern is not necessarily reflected in most peoples’ actions. A possible explanation: people do not know what they can do to take meaningful action. But consumers have arguably become more prepared in recent years to change their behaviours, in order to be more environmentally friendly, but don’t want to feel too much financial pain as a result. This week, The Guardian carried a report of a new poll by Opinium showing that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed thought that recent government measures to boost energy conservation needed to go much further, and half said they were doing their bit by installing insulation or turning down the thermostat.
Moreover, the public expects business and government to take a key leadership role in facilitating change and making green choices easier. This expectation needs to be weighed against a considerable amount of cynicism and mistrust in the motivations of both business and government in respect of environmental matters.
The bottom line is that most people don’t want to pay more in green taxes. According to The Guardian report, more than seven out of 10 of the those questioned said they were unwilling to pay higher taxes to combat environmental issues, and a similar number believed the green agenda had been "hijacked" to increase taxes.
Earlier this month, Eurobarometer published the results of a new survey on Europeans’ attitudes to climate change. The report shows that the British public hold some different views about climate change from those in the rest of the EU. The views uncovered by the Eurobarometer – mainly about how well-informed people are about the magnitude of the challenge – also provide further explanation for the somewhat contradictory opinions outlined above.
First, people in the UK appear somewhat less convinced than other EU citizens about the scale of the climate crisis. Three in four European citizens say that they take the problem very seriously. But three in five UK citizens think the same and this country has the highest percentage (14 per cent) saying climate change is not a serious problem. Along with respondents from Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, UK respondents are the only ones that rank “international terrorism” as a more important problem than climate change. And four in ten UK respondents think that the. A UK majority (52 per cent) disagreed that the seriousness of climate change has been exaggerated but 39 per cent, a large minority, Across the EU as a whole, the margin of disagreement was 65 per cent to 26 per cent.
Second, British people may be more pessimistic about climate change. This country has one of Europe’s largest proportions of citizens who agree that climate change is an unstoppable process and that we cannot do anything about it: 39 per cent of UK respondents agreed with this proposition and 52 per cent disagreed. Across the EU, however, the figures were 60 per cent disagreeing to 31 per cent agreeing.
Third – and this could explain a lot -- UK citizens may not be as well-informed about climate change as previously thought. When asked whether they feel well informed about climate change issues and the ways of fighting it, UK citizens come in the top five of EU countries. But this self-perception may not be well placed. British respondents are among those more likely to say that CO2 emissions have only a marginal impact on climate change (44 per cent agreed, compared to an EU average of 30 per cent).
Perhaps people in this country are becoming victims of “green-out” and that the endless stream of bad climate news has exhausted people and caused them to tune out of the issue?
But British people are amongst Europe’s top five when it comes to personally taking actions aimed at helping to fight climate change. In particular, the separation of waste for recycling appears to be well established in this country. A sense of “common endeavour” is their main reason for taking climate action – though it resonates less in this country than elsewhere in Europe. They are also less likely to admit to being motivated by financial factors.
Let’s get real: money is obviously a key driver in peoples’ decisions. 44 per cent of Europeans say that they would be ready to pay between 1 per cent and 30 per cent more for green energy. Thirty per cent would not be willing to pay more. 26 per cent have no opinion. For the UK, the figures are 36 per cent ready to pay more, 41 per cent not ready and 23 per cent do not know. As long as green energy is more expensive, or specific policy measures designed to promote renewables are picked up by consumer, that will have a big impact on the politics of climate change. Here, the conventional wisdom is confirmed.
British opinions about climate change may be more polarized than they may once have seemed. UK citizens are more likely than those in other EU countries to give a lack of concern about climate change as the reason for not taking action. They are much less likely (24 per cent compared to an average of 42 per cent) to give as the reason a belief that governments, companies and industries should do more, not to take action. They are also less likely to give a lack of knowledge about what they can do.
As for who should solve the climate crisis, most British people are unlikely to look to the EU. UK respondents were less likely than their continental partners to know about what the EU is doing on climate change: 22 per cent, compared to an EU average of 24 per cent. As a result, they were less likely to say that the EU was not doing enough: 49 per cent against an EU average of 58 per cent.
So the Liberal Democrats may want to think carefully before making climate issues per se the centerpiece of the next European election campaign. We should consider the potential opportunities too: three in five UK respondents either support or see as too modest the EU target to increase to 20 per cent the share of energy that comes from renewables by 2020.
And who do most British people think should try to solve the climate crisis? 54 per cent say their own government is not doing enough about it. (Even so, that figure is 10 per cent lower than the EU average.) A possible modification to accepted thinking: a higher number (60 per cent) say that citizens themselves are not doing enough. And 70 per cent say that corporations and industry are not doing enough on climate change. Both the latter figures are also slightly under the EU average. There are some obvious political opportunities there, but they need to be traded off against other data about what people are prepared to do (pay) themselves. [see above, and also this, and this]
The honest answer is that the EU, national governments, citizens and business all need to do more, much more. The real question remains, who pays the most and receives the most benefits, and when.