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.

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