On the eve of a global, youth-led climate strike, and as the new Climate Change & Social Transformations centre (CAST) launches in Cardiff, public opinion on climate change is entering a new phase.
Climate change has - finally - risen up the public agenda. As if a dam has burst, and our collective climate concern has come rushing out, climate change is now impossible to avoid.
From the fires burning in the Amazon, to the hurricane that brought tragedy to the Bahamas, and record-breaking heatwaves around the world, the human causes and consequences of climate change are now regularly laid bare for all to see.
Bold, high-profile activism by Extinction Rebellion, stark warnings from scientists, and the heartbreaking call-to-arms of the youth-led school strikes have been fanned by a surge in media coverage. At times, it has felt headspinningly hard to keep up.
Politicians are starting (albeit decades too late) to slowly acknowledge the kinds of plans that might just get us out of this mess. ‘Net zero’ decarbonisation policies and calls for a ‘Green New Deal’ are arriving thick and fast from around the world. Their focus may need sharpening up, their ambition may need fast-tracking, and public pressure needs to be sustained to keep things moving forward.
But the fact the commitments are being made in the first place is a reason for hope.
And on the eve of an unprecedented general strike for the climate, a clutch of new polls suggest that public opinion on climate change may be entering a new phase too - although as we conclude below, continued efforts to engage the public are critical to keep up the momentum.
What do recent polls say about public opinion on climate change?
British polling commissioned by the new CAST Centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations) - which launches today - finds almost 50% of the public saying they have become more worried about climate change over the past 12 months, with levels of concern reaching new highs in 2019.
Reflecting surveys carried out in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion actions in central London last spring, the CAST survey finds a clear majority agreeing that we are facing a climate emergency, requiring urgent action.
More unexpectedly, a separate poll announced last week found a third of the British public agreeing with the most radical of Extinction Rebellion’s demands: to bring the country’s ‘net zero’ carbon target forward to 2025 (from 2050). To put this in perspective, that would mean feeding ourselves, and powering our homes and transport, without releasing any CO2 at all, within 6 years. And planting a mind-boggling number of trees.
It’s not clear that there is yet a good understanding among the public of what ‘net zero’ really means - and there is therefore a job to do to successfully communicate net-zero. this. But one way of interpreting that poll is as an enormous green flag to politicians turbo-charge the UK’s climate change targets. The faster and further we can push them, creating a fair and just transition towards sustainability, the safer we all will be.
And there are signs that - in the UK at least - people are willing to put their money where their mouth is. The CAST data shows a healthy two-thirds majority agreeing that air travel needs to be curbed.
A smaller number however (just over half) felt that eating less meat was a reasonable way to cut carbon. Other surveys paint a similar, perhaps more positive picture: while there doesn’t appear to be much support at a national level for completely vegetarian or vegan diets to combat climate change, most agree with the idea of a lower-carbon diet with less meat in it.
It’s not necessarily all encouraging news though: a further recent global poll finds large numbers of people around the world agree that climate change will lead to the extinction of the human race - which although technically possible, remains (thankfully) an outside possibility. While an overdue jolt of fear seems to be a key element in the uptick in public engagement over the last 12 months, the social science is clear that striking a balance between fear and constructive suggestions for how to solve the problem is the right way to go.
The same survey that found support for bringing UK net-zero goals forward to 2025, though, also found a woefully low level of confidence in the British government to achieve it - even by 2050. And yet another poll showed there’s a long way to go before climate campaigners’ work is done: people consistently put ‘recycling’ at the top of the list of personal actions that make a difference, when in reality things like avoiding flying should be much further up the rankings.
Strong public engagement is key to keeping up the momentum
In some ways, we’ve been here before: in 2008, ahead of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, and in 2013, around major flooding in the UK, levels of public concern rose but then receded again with the flood waters. Without focused campaign and communications work, all this progress could fall away.
But looking across this wave of new surveys and polls, a picture emerges that pretty accurately captures the reality of climate change in 2019: we’re worried, we want things to move faster, we don’t put much faith in our governments to do the right thing, but we’re increasingly prepared to do our bit as individuals (and voters).
And although there’s a long way to go yet, this isn’t a bad place for public opinion to be. More and more, the signs are that people recognise and are ready for the transition ahead - and all of us who work on climate communication have a responsibility to keep it that way, translating elevated levels of concern into meaningful action in behaviours and at the ballot box.
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