Tales of rising climate scepticism are overstated and misleading

This is a guest post by Leo Barasi who writes about public opinion on the website Noise of the Crowd. It is in response to Green Alliance’s new paper on public opinion and the environment.

Coverage of public opinion on climate change is never just about reporting numbers. Without appreciating the need for journalists to tell a story, we can never really understand why climate change polls are reported as they are.

Over the last decade, two distinct narratives have been told about what the public think of climate change. Each of these narratives has been so dominant for a time that it has been difficult for alternative views of public opinion to get much attention. 

The first, which dominated for most of the noughties, was that climate change was increasingly settled in the public’s minds as a great concern. Polls on climate change were rare for much of the decade, but when they did appear in the media, the coverage tended to acknowledge that the public was worried, although perhaps unsure about the risks or about possible solutions, as in this Observer article.

As a result, there was little prominent dissent from the view that climate change was becoming a more important issue for most people, along with a belief that the world needed to take decisive action.

The rise of scepticism
But by the end of 2009, this prevailing narrative about public views on climate change had given way to a very different account.

It happened quite suddenly, around the time of the COP15 in Copenhagen. Now, the dominant frame was that growing numbers of people doubted the existence of serious man-made climate change, and that there was increased resistance to measures to tackle it.

Opinion polls were important to the development of this new account. For about a year, from late 2009, polls were repeatedly used to show the same narrative: that fewer people were now worried about climate change.

The sheer weight of polls, reported across the media, gave the overwhelming impression of an ongoing change in opinion. But this was misleading: in fact, there appears to have been a one-off fall in concern about climate change, which happened between November’09 and January ’10.

The difficulty in understanding opinion lies in the fact that media outlets want to report their own polls, as an exclusive story. They’re much less interested in repeating polls that another newspaper or broadcaster have commissioned.

So over a period of several months, we saw different polls in outlets from the Daily Mail to the BBC and Guardian, which essentially restated the same phenomenon as if it were a new finding. The result was a powerful new narrative, that concern about climate change was experiencing an ongoing decline.

There are two reasons why it’s useful to see this as a new dominant narrative about public opinion, rather than as straight-forward reporting of opinion.

The first is that the decline in concern about climate change was reported selectively. At the same time as this concern fell, people also became less worried about (almost) everything else, including immigration, and law and order.

By focusing on climate change, the media missed the much bigger fact that people had become less worried about everything that wasn’t the economy.

The second point lost in this new story is that ‘belief’ in climate science is often a poor guide to people’s desire for action to be taken to avert climate change. A fascinating poll in January ’10 found that, among people who said climate change was an unproven theory, nearly two-thirds were still satisfied with the Copenhagen Accord’s aim of reducing emissions.

Today’s dominant narrative
So the new narrative of public opinion on climate change looks to have been overstated, selective and misleading. But it still was utterly dominant, and continues to be influential.

There is no evidence that concern about climate change fell further after early ’10, and there is growing evidence that it has recovered some of the ground. This has prevented further reports of polls that show falling numbers worried about climate change. Yet, the story has adapted and survived.

Now, the focus has shifted to apparent resistance to measures to tackle climate change. What’s interesting is that this goes beyond the Mail (energy bills) and the Telegraph (windfarms).

The Guardian’s recent reporting of a poll on energy sources is informative. The poll found windfarms to be easily the most popular source of power, with about three times as much support as coal. The article could have been headlined “Overwhelming local opposition to nuclear and coal power, poll finds”.

Yet, the poll also found an increase in opposition to all forms of power – including wind – and instead the headline was “Local opposition to onshore windfarms has tripled, poll shows”. The dominant story of the last two years informed how the findings were interpreted, even in the Guardian.

We should never expect polls in the media to provide a completely objective account of reality. They are commissioned, prepared and reported with the aim of generating news stories. That news will almost inevitably reflect the dominant narrative of the time, and polling should always be seen in that light.

What people really think about the environment: an analysis of public opinion, is published today by Green Alliance.


  • Pingback: The British public still cares about the environment – and government has a mandate for action | green alliance blog

  • Leo, this is an interesting and throughtful blog, but I don’t think your main conclusions are supported by the evidence.

    You are quite correct that it is difficult to assess the signficiance of any particular opinion poll finding unless it is part of a consistent time series. Subtle chnages in the phrasing of a poll question can lead to big differences in how people respond.

    With that in mind, I think the annual survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics for the Department for Transport is among the most useful. The most recent results were published in January, reporting the fidnings of a survey that was carried out in August 2011: http://www.dft.gov.uk/statistics/releases/climate-change-and-impact-of-transport-2011/

    The results summarised in Figure 1.1 on page 8 show a number trends over the period 2006 to 2011.

    1. The percentage of the public that report themselves as at least fairly concerned about climate chnage has steadily declined from 81 to 65%, with a steepening of the decline in the past couple of years which coincides with the financial crisis and economic downturn (which has become increasingly apparent since late 2008).
    2. The percentage who are at least fairly convinced that climate change is happening has also declined from 87 to 76%, with the most significant drop occurring between August 2009 and August 2010 (coinciding with the media coverage of the so-called ‘Climategate’ e-mails and the controversies over the IPCC reports).

    So yes, the evidence does show a decline in concern that can be attributed at least partly to the economic crisis. But acceptance of the scientific evidence has also fallen by a smaller, but still significant, amount. I do not think this can be reasonably attributed to greater cocnerns about the economy, but instead is a legacy of the controversies around the science.

    There are a couple of other important trends that are shown by other work. A survey by YouGov in early December 2009, shortly after the ‘Climategate’ e-mails were made public, found that only 41% of the public trusted climate scientists to tell the truth about global warming: http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/today_uk_import/YG-Archives-pol-lff-climatechange-091214.pdf

    More recent unpublished surveys show that public trust has not recovered.

    Even thought the impact on the public has been substantial, I think the impact on the UK media has been even greater. The University of Colorado’s record of UK newspaper articles about climate change appearing in UK newspapers shows a plummeting decline after 2009 to levels now not seen since 2004: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/media_coverage/uk/index.html

    And research carried out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford found that the amount of coverage being given to ‘sceptical’ voices about climate change in UK newspapers has increased very markedly in the past few years: http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/?id=687.

    Given these trends, I think we may yet see further declines in UK public ‘scepticism’ about climate change.

  • Hi Bob,

    Thanks for the thorough reply. Despite your comment that my conclusions aren’t supported by the evidence, I think we’re not too far from agreeing with one another.

    As you acknowledge, it’s clear that the most significant drop in concern about climate change happened between August ’09 and August ’10. Plenty of polls that we can both cite have demonstrated this. As I also pointed out, this drop in concern looks very likely to be associated with the financial crisis, since concern about lots of things unrelated to the environment also appears to have fallen at the same time.

    I very much agree with your point that the impact of ‘Climategate’ on the UK media was greater than on the rest of the population. The chart you reference is interesting (although of course it’s not necessarily the case that the fall was due to ‘Climategate’ rather than other factors, eg loss of momentum after Copenhagen, or distraction because of recession).

    However, we clearly do disagree on two points.

    1. You cite the DfT survey as evidence that concern about climate change has carried on falling after mid-2010 (between August ’10 and August ’11). The poll does indeed suggest this, but other polls have indicated opposite conclusions. Data from GlobeScan with the result of an annual tracking poll shows concern increased between mid-’10 and mid-’11: http://www.noiseofthecrowd.com/exclusive-concern-about-climate-change-has-increased-in-the-last-year/. A Guardian/ICM poll at the start of last year found a similar story: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jan/31/public-belief-climate-change. There haven’t been as many polls in the last year as there were in the year before, but the picture does seem to be of increasing concern. Whether or not concern about non-climate issues have also increased is an interesting question. But either way I don’t think there’s evidence that ‘scepticism’ is currently increasing (though of course it ‘may’ increase again).

    2. I’m really unconvinced by the view that the public have been meaningfully influenced in their opinion of climate change by ‘Climategate’ or associated controversies. I would be surprised if more than about 20% would even recall the story if asked about it in a polling question now (eg ‘Can you remember hearing over the last few years any news stories about scientists researching climate change?’). The YouGov question you link to first told people about the controversies surrounding climate change research before asking them if they trust climate change researchers! It’s hardly a fair question. As we agree, the way the media has been reporting climate change stories is likely to be a factor in their views of science – much more in my opinion than any direct recall of ‘Climategate’ or other controversies about science. For what it’s worth, I think that the response to questions about whether or not people agree with the science have become increasingly about political/social views (ie do you like/dislike green campaigners) – as hinted at by the way people still want action to tackle climate change even when they say they don’t believe the science.

    Cheers and thanks again for the comment,

  • Pingback: Manchester Climate weekly nuggets: 16th April 2012 | manchester climate monthly

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