Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Pollwatch: global public less concerned with climate change than other environmental issues

The Guardian’s Damian Carrington has commented on a new Nielson survey, showing that across the world, more than two in three online consumers are concerned about climate change. That figure has hardly changed in the last four years. But people in the biggest polluting nations, the United States and China, are becoming less concerned.

The Nielson survey rams home a hard political truth: the extent to which concern about climate change is driven by consumers’ perceptions of their own interests, especially the “hip pocket nerve”. As Carrington says:

At the highly concerned end are Thailand, Mexico and Indonesia, all places with relatively limited capacity to cope with climate change and in regions expected to be hard hit [by extreme weather].


At the opposite end, the least concerned, we have wealthy Norway, Australia and the UK, all places that are not yet really feeling the bite of climate change and anxious that their rich lifestyles might be affected by climate action.

Since the global economic crisis of 2008, the UK media and the public have lost interest in climate change, and focused on more immediate concerns like jobs, money and crime. The Nielsen report confirms that global “climate change” apathy has increased and goes on to provide this explanation:

The global economic recession (and its lingering effects on the job market and inflation) appears to have misplaced climate change as a big worry for many. But while half (48%) of unconcerned global online consumers cite “more urgent and serious matters in the world today” as the main reason for climate change apathy, 37 percent believe that climate change is not the result of human behavior and 23 percent believe future technologies will solve the problem.

The Nielsen survey also suggests that people are more likely to be concerned with environmental issues whose impacts they can more easily see, experience or hear about, a trend that the current climate trance has magnified.

Three out of four global consumers rated air pollution (77%) and water pollution (75%) as top concerns, both increasing six percentage points compared to 2009. The issues of pesticides, packaging waste and water shortages were all top concerns for 73 per cent of global consumers. As a result, climate change / global warming (69%) took what Nielsen calls a “back seat” to other environmental issues.

But we shouldn’t get drawn into an over-simplified politics of false environmental choices - “climate change vs. the rest”. Global consumer concern about climate change has increased, albeit marginally, since 2009. In Europe, consumer concern about climate change has jumped by 10 percentage points over that time. The interesting finding from the Nielson research is that concern with other environmental issues has grown dramatically since 2009 – pesticides (up 16 percentage points), preventing waste (up 14) and water shortages (up 13).

The contours of public opinion of environmental issues may be more subtle than they sometimes appear. The Nielsen report provides no detailed breakdown by region or country, though it notes that water pollution was the main concern for Europeans. In April-May this year, a Eurobarometer survey found that European citizens’ five top environmental concerns were, in order: man made disasters (oil spills etc); water pollution; air pollution; impact on health of chemicals -- and climate change.

For UK citizens, the top environmental concerns were (in order): climate change (1st=); growing waste (1st=); man made disasters; water pollution; and depletion of natural resources.

And climate change is not easily separated out from the other environmental issues described above. For instance, climate change is set to put new pressures on water availability in England; reduced water supplies increase the risk of water pollution. Better waste management should help to reduce C02 emissions.

So, what we have now is a global public concern about “the environment”, that is made of a number of issues, elements and frames, of which climate change is one of the most significant, despite the media trance of recent years.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Media bias, rising power bills spell trouble for clean energy

The UK media continues its climate trance. Latest figures from the Centre for Science and Policy Research at the University of Colorado show that the downturn in media coverage of climate change has carried on through 2011.

It may be more useful to see the climate change debate in the context of energy policy. I have previously suggested that UK media coverage of climate change has evolved over the last couple of years. The focus is now more on energy technologies than the latest bad news about rising global temperatures. Yet the media’s interest in energy innovation may not be a new thing. Last month, Matt Nisbet pointed to a forthcoming study that provides the first cross-national comparisons of how energy policy has been covered and debated in the news. Apparently, the study shows that from 1991 to 2006, the focus in the UK and Finland has been on energy technologies, especially nuclear build.

And whether it’s a new fad or an old theme, the media’s interest in energy technologies may not be good news for supporters of renewables. Duncan Clark of The Guardian recently reported on a study by the Public Interest Research Centre (PRIC). The PIRC study found that in July 2009, more than half of the coverage of renewable energy in the mainstream press was negative. He argues that such media bias matters

… in a country where planning obstacles are a major barrier to new renewable energy installations [and] where fairly small numbers of "antis" can block or delay major installations, every negative story or piece of misinformation counts.


As Pirc researcher Tim Holmes points out in his introduction, press coverage is important because it can influence not only "what people perceive and believe" but also "what politicians think they believe". Indeed, politicians take the temperature of public opinion partly through the barometer of the press, and consistently negative coverage of renewables will doubtless "limit the perception of political space and impetus for political action", as Holmes puts it.

Let’s not get too carried away. The media is not a quasi-magical device that tells most people what to think, most of the time. Energy Issues 2009, carried out for Ofgem by Ipsos MORI, said:

The various forms of renewable energy are most popular with the British public as sources of electricity, led by hydro power, and fossil fuels are the least popular, though nuclear energy is apparently viewed more similarly to a fossil fuel method. Tidal power, wave power, offshore wind energy and large-scale solar power are also very popular. Wind farms on land are somewhat less popular, but still ahead of the various methods that involve combustion. Most favoured of these is biomass, followed by gas. Nuclear energy is less likely to be preferred than any other form except coal, which is bottom of the ranking.

Earlier this year, the Understanding Risk /MORI poll showed that solar power, wind power, hydroelectric and biomass are the most popular energy sources, well ahead of coal, nuclear and oil. (Click here for the analysis by Climate Sock.)

But things may be about to change. Hardly a week goes by without one of the major energy companies announcing a big rise in consumer bills. They blame a surge in wholesale gas prices, not always convincingly.

Some government policies that are designed to boost low carbon energy sources, including renewables, are loaded on to consumers’ energy bills. The extent to which those policies push up power bills is already being grossly exaggerated by the Daily Mail, and others. DECC says that the policies add 4% to the average gas price and 14% to the average electricity price. Last year, DECC estimated that domestic retail gas prices would be 18% higher and retail electricity prices 33% higher in 2020 as a result of energy and climate change policies. But energy efficiency measures may blunt the policies’ impact on consumer bills.

The government’s planned reforms to the electricity market will also have an impact, with DECC arguing they will cause a net reduction in energy bills. (To be sure, those reforms are designed to support a range of low carbon energy sources, including nuclear.) Later this year, the government is due to publish a new assessment of how energy and climate change policies will affect consumers' power bills.

But we all know how perceptions can trump reality. And over the next few years, the public’s pro-renewable instincts will come up against greater concerns about the rising cost of living, especially higher energy bills. A recent Populus poll found that 87 per cent of 2,000 respondents were "very” or “somewhat” concerned about rising gas and electricity prices. Energy costs are nearly twice as important to the public as the NHS, unemployment and public sector cuts, which have all received far greater attention from the media.

If a biased media chisels away at public support for renewables, with energy prices are rising and household budgets under acute pressure, the government may feel under pressure to do a U-turn on its clean energy policies.

Do DECC ministers and the renewable energy lobby know how they are going to handle the coming backlash?

Narrativewatch: How Britain's political classes see what they want to see in this week's mayhem.

To see this post, click here.