Public opinion on climate change

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.


BBC World Service recently published the results of a large worldwide survey on climate change issues. It gathered data from over 20 countries but the results I write about in this section are from the US, urban Chinese and UK responses. For clarity, I have generally grouped the responses into percentages that ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ although respondents will have usually been offered a wider range of options. I have omitted ‘don’t knows’.

Human activity is a significant cause of global warming

US China UK
Agree 71 87 78
Disagree 24 11 17

More people in China think that human activity is responsible than in the UK or the US.

Is it necessary to take steps to reduce the impact of human activities?

US China UK
Major steps 59 78 70
Modest steps 33 16 25
Not necessary to take steps 6 4 3

The Chinese are more inclined to believe it is necessary to take major steps to do something about climate change. In the UK and the US, the percentage of people saying nothing needs to be done is well below the percentage of 'deniers'. Many of the sceptics still want to do something. This is not irrational. We insure our houses even though the chance of damage is tiny.

Developing nations should not be expected to limit their emissions

US China UK
Agree 18 27 25
Disagree 75 68 70

A large majority in China agree that developing nations should limit emissions. The other countries also have a strong view that developing countries need to bear some of the burden.

To encourage individuals to use less, the costs of energy should be increased

US China UK
Necessary 65 83 77
Not necessary 32 14 20

Even in America there is a two-to-one majority in favour of increasing the price of carbon-based energy.

Changes in lifestyle and behaviour are necessary to reduce global warming gases

US China UK
Necessary 79 86 87
Disagree 19 12 12

The view that lifestyle changes are necessary is more strongly held than that carbon-based energy prices should be increased.

Taxes on carbon fuels should be raised

US China UK
Favour 46 85 54
Oppose 51 13 42

The Chinese are much more in favour of using taxes than the UK and US. In the UK and US these numbers are substantially below the percentages of people who think that is necessary to raise energy prices.

In some further questions those opposing tax increases were asked whether using the money to support renewables and energy efficiency would change their view. About half of the opponents in the UK and US changed their mind to support higher taxes in these cases.

Ready to make significant changes to the way I live to help prevent global warming

US China UK
Agree 76 83 81
Disagree 22 14 16

About 80% of people are prepared to make significant changes to lifestyle. The percentages ‘strongly’ agreeing with this statement were 43% in the US, 47% in China and 37% in the UK. The percentage of people apparently really committed to doing something is lowest in the UK, though still a large fraction of the population. This is consistent with the results from the HSBC poll reported on in an earlier edition of Carbon Commentary.

The overall conclusions from the BBC survey Opinions vary across the world, but a clear majority is in favour of the view that humankind is responsible and that lifestyles will have to change to meet the challenge. There is no evidence to support the view that people in China are any less prepared to bear some burden than respondents in the UK and US.

The E.ON survey E.ON published a long document summarising several pieces of research it has carried out this year.

Children’s views The report looks first at the attitudes of children and young people to climate change, showing a higher degree of concern than among older people. Paul Golby, CEO of E.ON UK, writes:

‘Not only are children most worried about global warming and climate change…but they are also convinced we won’t be able to solve the problem for them.’

73% of children believe that all energy should come from renewable sources. 69% ‘believe that they have a responsibility to encourage others to recycle and save energy’.

My interpretation of E.ON’s commentary is that levels of knowledge about climate change are surprisingly low, but there is a substantial degree of generalised anxiety about the problem.

Adult segmentation The second issue of Carbon Commentary carried an article on the results of segmentation studies by Henley Centre and Marks & Spencer. M&S sees the following segments:

  • A: Green zealots: people who will actively seek out the most ethically and environmentally responsible products. Climate change is particularly important issue to these people.
  • B: Those interested and concerned, but often uncertain how to shop to achieve their ethical objectives.
  • C: Aware of the problem, not certain that their actions can have much effect or that they need to shop differently.
  • D: Struggling, do not give high priority to issues covered in Plan A.

The company assessed the percentages in each segment as follows:

Group Now 3 years ago
A 5-10% 3-4%
B 30-35% about 15%
C 30-35% about 50-60%
D 25-30% 25-30%

E.ON cuts the population into five types, not four:

  • Type 1: ‘Clued up about environmental issues and recognises the direct impact the UK’s energy consumption has on climate change.’
  • Type 2: ‘They believe people are damaging the environment and are taking some tentative easy steps to reduce their impact.’
  • Type 3: ‘This segment seems happy for others to save the planet, with their support. They have taken few, if any, steps themselves.’
  • Type 4: ‘The issue is generally not that important to them.’
  • Type 5: ‘They disagree that humanity is to blame for climate change...They don’t recognise any need to act now.’
Type 1 Type 2 Type 3 Type 4 Type 5
22% 25% 22% 18% 13%

Types 4 and 5 seem very similar to Marks & Spencer’s group D: both with about 25-30% of the population. These people will not be receptive to marketing offers that focus on the climate change benefits of a product or service. Type 1 is an extended version of M&S’s group A, less committed than the ‘zealots’ of A, but still well informed and worried. Type 1 people will respond well to green offers. The marketing challenge will be to get people in Types 2 and 3 to match their concerns over climate change with purchasing decisions that match their own attitudes.