public opinion

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A recent UK Department for Transport (DfT) survey provides useful data on attitudes towards climate change and on cutting emissions. The fieldwork was carried out in August 2009 and so will not incorporate any effects from the recent criticisms of the IPPC and the revealing of a large number of emails written by CRU scientists at the University of East Anglia. The most interesting feature of the DfT research is that it continues to show that a very substantial majority of people believe that the climate is changing but that relatively few are prepared to welcome potentially painful changes to lifestyle, such as cutting the number of flights taken. The percentages of people suggesting high levels of concern about global warming are generally down about 3-5% since 2006.

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Image source: Conservatives.

Image source: Conservatives.

A new piece of research shows that potential Conservative voters in the UK are typically slightly less supportive of strong environmental policies than the population as a whole. Undecided voters that the Tories want to attract into their camp are generally even less convinced by eco-friendly political initiatives. Although the party leadership remains eager to portray itself with a greenish tinge, the lack of support among voters will tend to circumscribe the freedom to propose radical ideas for the 2010 election. If your target voters are wary of strong environmental policies, you don’t propose them in the run-up to an election.

Not unexpectedly, Tory voters want green policies to be focused on investment in emissions-reducing technologies and tend to reject any increase in taxes or restrictions on economic freedoms. So, for example, it will be difficult for the party to reject airport expansion strongly.

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Books referred to:

Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming: The Missing Science, UK edition, Quartet Books, 2009.

Christopher Booker, The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is The Obsession With ‘Climate Change’ Turning Out To Be The Most Costly Scientific Blunder In History?, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

The phrase ‘the science is settled’ is regularly used by politicians arguing for meaningful action on climate change. To the majority of the world’s scientists, global warming is a clear and present danger and those who deny it, or argue that its effects will limited or benign, are dangerous lunatics. Nevertheless, an increasing numbers of voters, particularly in the US and the UK, have drifted into the sceptic camp in recent months and years. A Pew Research October survey in the US showed the percentage of people seriously concerned by the climate change issue down from 77% to 65% in two years. An international survey by HSBC showed a fall from 32% to 25% over the past year in the percentage of people from developed markets saying that climate change was the biggest issue that respondents worried about. The overall figure across all 12 countries surveyed fell from 42% in 2008 to 34% in 2009.[*]

A batch of highly successful books from journalists and maverick scientists has provided the intellectual covering fire for this decline. The result of the growing scepticism will be a weakening of national resolutions to take the difficult steps required to shift rich countries away from dependence on fossil fuels.

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Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Gallup reports a steep rise in the number of Americans thinking that climate change is exaggerated. Well, that’s how the US newspapers reported the results. A look at the detailed polling responses gives a slightly different view. The change more reflects a decline in the perceived accuracy of news reporting rather than a substantial swing in attitudes towards the threat from global warming.

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Why is humanity finding it difficult to take action on climate change?
Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that included promises to pursue aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. Broadly speaking, the reality has not matched the promises made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Politicians may intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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In Denmark and Germany, large numbers of individuals own shares in local wind farms. If the government encouraged this in the UK, a large part of the local opposition would disappear. Onshore wind farms in windy locations are good investments which could form an effective part of many people’s pension plans.

One of the few co-operatively owned wind farms in the country has almost finished raising its funds. Investors have put up £3m to buy two existing turbines in the Fens. Locally owned wind farms should be encouraged as a cost effective means of cutting emissions.

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Eco housebuilding


After decades of foot-dragging, the UK construction industry has begun to see the importance of good insulation and higher environmental performance. Large housebuilders are beginning voluntarily to build their major developments to a better standard than required by building regulations.

Housebuilders also see the increasing commitment by government to increasing the mandatory standards for home insulation and other environmental characteristics. By 2016, all new homes will have to be ‘zero carbon’.

A report just released by estate agents Knight Frank examines whether buyers are prepared to pay the cost of the eco-improvements. The answer seems to be a cautious ‘yes’.

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BBC World ServiceTwo pieces of market research published in the last week give some more support for the view that opinion is moving towards accepting that climate change will require lifestyle changes. BBC World Service interviewed individuals across the globe. Power company E.ON produced its segmentation of British consumer attitudes.

The BBC survey suggested that over 80% of UK people are ‘ready to make significant changes in the way I live to help prevent global warming’. Nearly 90% think that changes in lifestyle will be necessary to address the problem. These numbers are approximately the same as among urban Chinese and only marginally higher than the US.

E.ON’s segmentation has over 20% of the UK already taking serious and possibly costly personal action related to climate change. Less than 15% actively reject any need to act now.

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Many companies selling to UK families have a strong sense that consumer demands are shifting rapidly. M&S recently talked to Carbon Commentary about its perceptions of changes in attitudes and behaviour. This article compares its results with those of a survey by the Henley Centre in summer 2007.

During the last year or so, the percentage of ‘green zealots’ in M&S research has risen from 3-4% to nearer 8%. Henley also sees a figure of 8% for the two greenest groups ‘principled pioneers’ and ‘vocal activists’. A further 31% (Henley Centre) or 30-35% (M&S) are actively concerned and want to adjust their behaviour. There has also been a big growth in this group in the last year.

In both surveys another third are aware of environmental and ethical issues, but are unlikely to take active steps unless pushed. A final quarter or so don’t care very much. M&S says that they are ‘struggling’. Henley calls them ‘disengaged’.

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