HomeBehaviour changeThe British public still cares about the environment – and government has a mandate for action

The British public still cares about the environment – and government has a mandate for action

This blog post is based on a paper What people really think about the environment: an analysis of public opinion, published today by Green Alliance.

We’re living with the effects of what’s been called the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Unemployment is rising, and so are the costs of basic necessities such as food and energy. In the face of these economic challenges, there’s a perception that the public no longer cares about climate change, or living more sustainably.

But is this really the case? Has Britain become a “nation of climate change sceptics”?

In short, the answer is no.

While this might be the dominant story being told at the moment, the reality is very different. Opinion polls and other evidence from recent years show that concern about environmental issues, and support for solutions, remains strong.

Concern about climate change
Most people are still worried about climate change. According to an Ipsos MORI poll in 2010, 71 per cent of people were very concerned or fairly concerned about climate change, and two thirds believed it poses risks to people in Britain.[i] Of course people have become more concerned about the economy since 2008, and as a result they’re less worried about other things, including climate change. But that does not mean they don’t care – the overwhelming majority still do. There are also signs that interest in climate change has begun to increase again recently: the number of people who think climate change is a ‘very serious’ problem rose from 43 per cent in 2010 to 49 per cent in 2011.

Support for solutions: greener living
In terms of UK policy decisions, abstract concern about climate change is less relevant than people’s feelings about solutions.

There is evidence that increasing numbers of people say they have adopted green habits or would like to. In 2004, 45 per cent of English householders classed themselves as “committed recyclers”; by 2011 this had risen to 70 per cent[ii]. Three quarters of householders say that all councils should provide a separate food waste collection, and the number of people in the UK claiming to take energy efficiency measures has risen from 41 per cent in 2004 to 61 per cent in 2009.

Saving money and being green often go hand in hand at a household level. This may be why a 2011 ASDA customer survey shows that respondents on lower incomes were as likely as the wealthiest to say that using less energy and water at home was “normal” or “intelligent”, with 67 per cent holding this view. It would be wrong to assume that caring about environmental sustainability is a middle classes phenomenon. Indeed, ASDA customers in socio-economic categories D and E were the most likely of all groups to say they ‘care very much indeed’ about being green.

Support for solutions: windfarms and energy bills
Looking at the bigger picture, a 2011 YouGov survey commissioned by The Sunday Times showed public support for renewable technologies remains very high; 74 per cent of adults think government should use more solar energy than at present, and 60 per cent of respondents said government is right to subsidise wind energy.

And while politicians and commentators may have been affected by misleading media reports blaming rising energy bills on green taxes, the vast majority of respondents to ASDA’s customer survey were not. Only five per cent said they thought renewable energy and energy efficiency measures were responsible for rising bills. The majority of respondents (56 per cent) said they thought energy companies were just charging more, and 29 per cent blamed the rises in global gas, oil and coal prices.

Government leadership
It’s clear that the public cares about environmental issues and has begun to take action. But people don’t think that they can solve climate change and other environmental problems alone. In a 2010 Ipsos MORI survey, 32 per cent of people thought national governments should be mainly responsible for taking action on climate change, followed by the international community (30 per cent) and then companies (16 per cent). Only ten per cent said they thought individuals and their families should be mainly responsible.

People want government to show leadership and to ensure fairness. The majority of participants in a series of Ipsos MORI forums in 2009 said they wanted government to explain in clear simple terms why a shift in energy use is needed, set out “concrete goals for society and a deadline”, and “explain how government, businesses and individuals will all need to participate.”

This ties into research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which found that “While no-one especially liked the idea of regulation [to reduce carbon emissions] in itself, there was nevertheless a strong feeling that if households were going to make efforts or sacrifices in order to reduce consumption then everyone should be required to do so.”

A public mandate
Government has a public mandate to take coherent action on climate change and other environmental problems. Most people are concerned about these issues, and support solutions on a local, national and international level. We are far from becoming the Daily Mail’s “nation of climate sceptics”.

The challenge for government is to put in place policies to respond to public concern about climate change and the environment, and to provide guidance and leadership to help people play their part. People want to see how their own actions fit in with the bigger picture and with what others are doing.

For example, this could mean making sure the delivery of smart energy meters is accompanied by a communications strategy that explains to people what the benefits are, and how this is part of a wider, collective shift in the way we use energy. Not only would this help increase the likelihood of achieving energy savings, it would respond to what the public want.

For more information read the full paper and see Leo Barasi’s analysis of how the media reports climate change opinion polls

[i] This is a slight decrease from previous years; in 2005 83 per cent of respondents said they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ concerned about climate change.

[ii] Committed recyclers are defined by WRAP as people who (i) say recycling is very or quite important to them; (ii) say they recycle a lot or everything that can be recycled; and (iii) say they recycle even if it requires additional effort. See WRAP, 2006, Achievements Report 2005-06: Helping you to recycle more and landfill less and WRAP, 2011, Towards resource efficiency.

Written by

Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.