Do people still care about climate change in the era of Covid-19?

Why UK polling shows the need to redouble efforts on public engagement

From the moment it was classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, global media, social media, and the political discourse has been rightly dominated by Covid-19.

Our collective attention has been understandably focused on ‘flattening the curve’ of infections, mitigating the risks it poses to our communities and societies, and adapting our behaviours and planning to the ‘new normal’ of living with Covid-19. 

But there is another curve that will still need flattening once the pandemic passes, another set of global risks to mitigate, and preparations to make for the ‘new normal’ of living in a changing climate. 

With a vicious global recession looming, and the important UN climate conference in Glasgow delayed, some in the climate community are nervous that historically high levels of public concern might fall away, and the critical momentum of the past 18 months on climate change could be lost. 

 

History repeating?

There is a precedent for something similar happening just over a decade ago, when levels of public concern in countries such as the UK were very high. The ugly combination of a global recession, a ‘scandal’ provoked by the hacking of climate scientists’ emails, and a ‘failed’ UN climate conference in Copenhagen that was framed by many as ‘make or break’, led to a fall in public worry (and with it the sense that the world was turning the corner on climate change).   

There are certainly important differences with the post-Copenhagen dip ten years ago; the climate discourse then and now differs in a number of regards. 

Sceptics and ‘deniers’ were a central focus for climate campaigners a decade ago, but their influence is less clear now, and campaigns are rightly more focused on engaging ‘beyond the usual suspects’ and less on ‘debunking’ sceptic myths. With the Paris agreement in the bag, declarations of climate emergencies following hot on the heels of the Extinction Rebellion campaigns, the moral weight of the school strikes, and a clutch of ‘net zero’ policies from governments around the world, climate change was closer to the mainstream (pre-covid) in many countries around the world than it had ever been before. And we are now living in an era where climate impacts are happening all around us. 

But there are also striking similarities that should give serious cause for concern. Surging public worry preceding a global crisis, the emergence of potentially ‘tone deaf’ narratives about Covid-19 being a ‘dress rehearsal’ for climate change, and renewed efforts by fossil fuel lobbyists to seek bailouts for industries that must be urgently reformed, are all signs that the path towards net zero is not going to be straightforward. Globally, media coverage of climate change has fallen dramatically

In this context, what do the polls tell us about public opinion in the UK so far? 

 

A finite pool of worry?

It's important to recognise that in a fast moving situation, polls can only represent a snapshot of public opinion. But despite the overwhelming dominance of Covid-19 in our attention economy, there are no obvious signs (yet) that the public concern about climate change has collapsed. 

Although the concept of a ‘finite pool of worry’ has long been invoked to help explain our historical reluctance to prioritise climate change (when there are so many other more ‘immediate’ issues to worry about), this pool currently seems deep enough to include Covid-19 and climate change. 

One poll undertaken since the lockdown found that two-thirds of people believe climate change is as serious as the virus, while another found 48 per cent of the public agree that the government should respond "with the same urgency to climate change as it has with Covid-19.” 

This is a critical starting point for re-igniting the climate conversation once the global peak of the pandemic passes, and suggests a bedrock of concern about climate change that can underpin deeper engagement. 

But as ever, the ‘topline take’ masks differences and divisions, and doesn’t tell us much about how we frame and communicate climate change during and after the pandemic. More in-depth and nuanced understanding is required for this, and there are significant risks in assuming the ‘old rules’ still apply.

 

Build back better?

Some campaigners see glimmers of hope in the changes necessitated by Covid-19 policies. With planes grounded and cars left at home, rates of cycling are up and air pollution is down. The unplanned and unwanted ‘experiment’ of Covid-19 has temporarily halted the rise of global carbon emissions. 

Will there now be an appetite to keep some of the unintentional upsides of the lockdown, or is there a desperation to get back to business as usual as we’ve seen in communities recovering from climate impacts where sensitive communication is critical?

One analysis asked whether people wanted to see some of the personal or social changes they have experienced continue after lockdown: 85% said they did, with only 9% saying they wanted to see things ‘go back to normal.’

Maybe ‘normal’ wasn’t that great, for a lot of people in a lot of ways. But it doesn’t automatically follow that a vision of a low-carbon world which contains echoes of the grim necessities and radical restrictions of a lockdown is where people want to go instead. 

Britain (mirroring other nations) is split down the middle on whether or not the government should take actions which might ‘harm the environment’ to help the economy recover. There will be real tensions to navigate as the recession bites and the pressure to regain an economic foothold grows, and developing and testing narratives that take these competing pressures into account will be critical. 

 

Getting the narratives right

There is no sign yet of a collapse in public concern around climate change, but this is no time for complacency. 

Pre-Covid-19 polling evidence suggested that climate change had finally lodged itself in the public mind as an issue for the ‘here and now’. But with a long way to go in terms of the health, economic and emotional impacts of this pandemic on people around the world, there are also signs that populations will be split about how much (if at all) to prioritise decarbonisation and climate targets in the post-Covid-19 recovery process. 

Levels of concern may stay high, but without a depth of conviction and a commitment to climate policies in bad times as well as good, effective public engagement will remain a critical priority. So communication and engagement approaches must reflect this, understanding the common ground and shared values between audiences as well as their differences, and taking seriously the disruption that Covid-19 has caused to many of the things people hold dear (family, friends, food, travel and fundamentally their health). 

As many are arguing, the hard reset on industries like aviation may mean necessary conversations around flying behaviours are easier to have. But if too much emphasis is placed on the ‘opportunities’ offered by the post-Covid-19 recovery process for climate change, people will turn away, seeing the arguments as insensitive. 

So while there are important questions to be asked about how to rebuild more sustainably, policymakers and civil society must focus their efforts on listening to a wide range of perspectives and bringing people along in any low-carbon vision of a post-Covid-19 future. 

Because while there’s no sign that people have given up on climate change, tackling the twin emergencies of Covid-19 and climate change in an inclusive way is going to take some nimble, careful, and evidence-based approaches to public engagement.

 

This blogpost was written by Adam Corner with input from colleagues Robin Webster and Jamie Clarke.

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