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.


  • Had a read of the report and sorry to say its a little dull. Perhaps this is my latent prejudice against such policy wonk facing cultural product. Political values and movement is important and the rport does suggest that people favour government action on this. I would have loved it if you had gotten qualitative on this or brought in trident, consumerism and the riots, numbers on a page do not convey the interconnections going on here.

  • Hi Fuad, thanks for your comment. As the paper summarises opinion polls and surveys on a range of different environmental questions, there wasn’t space to include much qualitative or anecdotal evidence. The reports cited in the paper provide more detail (e.g. Ipsos MORI’s big energy shift), and or you might find Futerra reports such as Sell the Sizzle or Words that Sell interesting as they are more qualitative and based on focus group research.


  • The results speak for themselves (and yes I am aware statistics can be skewed one way or the other) but as a pretty normal member of our society I am of the opinion that we all still want to do more to help clean up our environment for the sake of our kids.

    I just think lots of people (myself included) can only do so much in these current economic times. By the time we’ve paid through the nose for our fossil fuel derived electricity and heat for our homes it can be a struggle just to put food on the table. We don’t all have the means to install a bank of photovoltaic panels, a ground source heat pump or a wind turbine. That does not stop us wanting to do something to improve our situation and reduce our expenses. We do want to do more; we just can’t afford it at present.

    So, until our situations improve we will continue to make the little changes we can afford. Such as draft proofing our homes and increasing the insulation in our cavities and roof spaces and turning the thermostat on the boiler down by a degree. All those little things that don’t seem to be substantial, but add up to real savings on our bills.

    Only when people start to see the difference in their own pockets will the green movement gather any sort of significant pace, after all “little strokes fell great oaks”.

  • These findings are consistent with what we already know. Honestly, they do not tell us anytning that is radically new or that could form the basis for enhancing effective interventation (from policy and practice perspectives).

    My view is that studies and analysis ought to go beyond understnding what people think or believe. Amongst others, we need to focus more on how we can understand the complex and multilayered interpretations that people have about specific pro-environmental behaviours. I will give a typical example. The average individual is likley to express awaraness about climate change as well as express belief that behaviour needs to be aligned in pro environmental manners if we are to adress climate change and othr environmental problems. As long as this does not imply a radical change (e.g where people need to make sacrifices), then we can expect that pro-environmental behaviour will occur. However, when acting for environmental reasons is inconsistent with social issues (e.g people’s perceptions of self and identity); economic factors (disposable income levels as noted in one of the comments above) or environmental beliefs (e.g locus control related arguments such as “my behaviour won’t make a difference” “government isn’t doing enough”) then expressed beliefs, such as those that have been cited in this article, may no longer translate to pro-enviromental behaviour.

    There is a big distinction between what people really think (expressed beliefs and values) and what they are willing to do (actual behavioural engagements). Of course, people are willing and actually do engage in recyling and energy conservation etc. But how many would be willing to engage in more pro-environmental behaviour they think demands more from them? A good instance would use of the car and flying. We all know we ought to be reducing emissions from these sources as well. So why do the majority of people in the UK not do this? How do they justify persistence in behaviours that are not pro-environmental despite a general expressio of belief that they need to adopt more sustainable lifestyles and behaviour. I believe these sort of areas need to be understood if we are to attain the levles of reduction in carbon emissions that are required to adress issues such as climate change. Given that people need to consume “less” and not just “differently”, why do expressed beliefs not translate to total sustainable lifestyles?

    Perhaps, the biggest hindrance to getting people to consume less is government itself. This analysis clearly states that people expect governemnt to take the lead; and that they also, to a reasonable extent, favour some sort of government regulation to enable behaviour change to occur. However, the neo-liberal ideology that underpins the current UK coalition government’s policies are not consistent with the sort of policy framework that will achieve emission reductions or getting people to consume less. The UK policy approach regarding behaviour change is similar to that of the USA; it is largely based on the “nudge” ideological approach. This approach places the burden of behaviour change on individuals; put this side by side with the idea of the Big Society and what you get is a smart move by government to free itself from regulating behaviour. This is why the Green Deal proposal is framed the way it is. Onus lies on the individual, who has to seek out information and choose to be involved; this is also why it is not likely to achieve much.

    Governmnt need to engage more with policies that adopt joined-up thinking. For instance, sedentary lifes have been related to unsustainable lifestyles and health issues such as obesity. Why not encourage behaviours that reduce sedentary lifestyles (e.g cycling). This way you will get a cleaner environment, more active people and less people entering healthcare in the first instance. Ultimately, this will also lead to econmic growth; less spending in the NHS and more economic growth given that less people are likely to call in sick to work. It is a win-win situation and largely dependent on government initiative; but will this ever happen in the UK?

  • Chijioke – Great points.

    Another pressure against meaningful behavioural change is that our economy (in its current format) relies so heavily on consumption, driven by advertising, that it is almost impossible to resist or avoid. There is a fundamental conflict between sustainability and consumerism which I don’t think even the most forward-thinking CSR initiatives can make much of a dent in. I hope to be proved wrong, though!

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