Climate change drops off 'hot topic' list
This year's British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey comes complete with gloomy headlines on public opinion about climate change. Compared with surveys in 1993 and 2000, concern about the seriousness of environmental threats has decreased, and the number of people saying they were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly services has dropped significantly.
Against a backdrop of economic woes, the finding that people are less keen to pay a sustainability surcharge should be no surprise. More intriguing is the explanation offered for the receding concern about the threat posed by climate change. The survey's authors suggest that the lingering effects of the 2009 Climategate affair – the release by climate sceptics of private emails between climate researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) – has knocked people's trust in climate science.
To those who observed the deafening silence that greeted the release of yet more of the hacked UEA emails last month, this is a curious explanation. It has become a media truism that the fallout from Climategate dented public confidence in climate science. But the few polls that have asked directly about it, which the BSA did not, have painted a more nuanced picture. A US study in 2010, found that Climategate primarily influenced those who were already sceptical.
Beyond the somewhat spurious Climategate angle, are the BSA findings really as worrying as they seem?
There are many years of polling about climate change to consider. Concern about the issue peaked around the middle of the last decade – before the hugely hyped UN negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, and after the worldwide release of Al Gore's doom-laden film An Inconvenient Truth. At one point, a study at Cardiff University found that 82 per cent of respondents were either "concerned" or "very concerned" about climate change – a very high proportion.
A long haul
But how plausible was it that the public would stay that concerned for the half century or more that it will take to really get to grips with climate change? Unlike more immediate threats, climate change will not have a significant effect on the majority of the UK population for some time. So the BSA results may be less of a collapse in public opinion, and more of an understandable levelling off of interest.
In fact, the most recent polling from the US – where scepticism about climate change has become a badge of honour for political conservatives – suggests a small but detectable upward trend in the number of people who agree that human activity is causing climate change. And in UK polls more recent than the BSA results, which were collected in 2010, levels of concern are once again increasing.
It is true that there is a large gap between public doubts expressed about the reality of climate change and the weight of the scientific evidence. It is tempting to feed the BSA data into a narrative of increasing scepticism about climate change, but the truth is probably more prosaic: climate change remains a significant concern for most people, if not the "hot topic" it was five years ago.