UK attitudes towards climate change and emissions reduction

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. a) Is the climate changing? 90% of Britons reported that they believed the climate is changing. 41% said a lot, 49% said a little. These figures are down very slightly since 2006.

b) Perceived impact on future generations Respondents were asked to assess how much climate change would affect future generations. 85% reported that it would impact 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot'. This figure is down from 89% in 2006.

c) Concern about climate change 76% said they were concerned (either 'very' or 'fairly') about climate change. This figure has declined 5% since 2006.

d) Willingness to change behaviour in response to the climate change problem About three quarters (74%) said that they 'agreed' or 'agreed strongly' with the statement 'I would be prepared to change behaviour to help limit climate change'. The DfT survey does not give a comparable figure for 2006

e) Cutting car use for the sake of the environment Just over half (58%) of respondents agreed with the statement that 'individuals should try to limit car use for environmental reasons'. This figure is down 4% since 2006.

The survey also asked about the contrasting statement 'people should be allowed to use their cars as much as they like even if [they cause] environmental damage'. 37% of people agreed with this statement, up sharply from 26% in 2006. To emphasize this point; more people said that car drivers should ignore environmental issues than said that they would not be prepared to 'change behaviour to help limit climate change' (point d).

f) Personal actions The survey then asks people what they themselves would be prepared to do in the next twelve months to help limit climate change. Recycling was mentioned by about nine in ten (i.e. about the same number that said that the climate of the UK is changing) but only about a quarter mentioned restricting the number of flights that they took. Only about 10% agreed with increasing the tax on petrol (down 4% since 2006).

g) Actual behaviour The DfT survey does not ask about what people have actually done to reduce their own responsibilities for emissions. But we know from other survey work that a relatively small number of people have taken significant and painful action on personal emissions. Most people now recycle actively and have installed low-wattage light bulbs. Only about 5-10% have decided to stop flying or not to own a car for environmental reasons.

Points a) to g) suggest the following hierarchy:

Believe climate is changing About 90%
Think that climate change will create significant impacts About 85%
Concerned about climate change About 75%
Accept the need to change behaviour in response to threat of climate change About 75%
Believe that individuals (not necessarily the respondent) should, for example, cut car use About 60%
Think that painful changes should be made that strongly affect the respondent, e.g. higher petrol tax or reduced flying Perhaps 10-25%
Have actually taken substantial steps to reduce emissions Perhaps 5-10%

Broadly speaking, other survey results show the same numbers and also repeat the small decline in the percentages of those worried or acting on climate. But, to repeat, the very cold UK winter of 2009/2010 and the stream of revelations about the IPCC and the CRU may have pulled all these figures down further.