249 - British Social Attitudes 1 - Climate Change


There is a wonderful service, a study of British social attitudes, produced annually by the National Centre for Social Research. These began in 1983 and interviews some 3000 people. The annual reports are available at no charge that I can see and at the same time these reports offer what are respected (does that also mean trusted?) results. Maybe what they mean is that no-one is arguing that what is reported is in any way wrong.  You won’t be surprised that what the press picks up on is any sense of change; for example [1] chooses to point up these changes over the last 5 years: there has been a fall of five percentage points in the proportion who believe those women should take up part-time work, to 38%. There was also a slight fall in the proportion of respondents who thought mothers should work part- or full-time once their offspring are at school, down four points to 76%. 

Questions are designed to be repeated, but new ones are added, such as this: This year, for the first time, in the wake of the #me-too phenomenon, NatCen explored attitudes around a man commenting loudly on a woman’s appearance in the street, by asking respondents their opinion of a scenario in which the man loudly comments that she “looks gorgeous”. 

The findings were surprising: overall, uninvited comments from men about a woman’s appearance were thought to be wrong by 57%. But while 61% of men thought such remarks were wrong, just 52% of women were of the same opinion.

I quote here the headline summary [2, Page 5]:

  • The British public are not as worried about major global challenges as the experts who work on them. Public concern about the threat of climate change and technology replacing their jobs is relatively low.
  • Age and education are major dividing lines in how we voted in the 2016 referendum and the 2017 General Election. These divides also show up in other areas such as climate change and welfare.
  • But on social issues these divides are narrowing, and our trust in one another is as high as it has ever been. Learning from these areas could help attempts to bridge the country’s political differences.
  • People increasingly want a new spending settlement on public services and expect employers to pay wages that cover the basic cost of living. Most people feel the NHS has a major funding problem and a large proportion want to see the minimum wage increased.
  • The public is divided into two evenly sized groups who have coalesced around opposing views of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Politicians face an uphill struggle to deliver a post-referendum settlement that will unite the country. 

It is perfectly possible that this report will generate a number of these essays. For now, I’ll start where I began in the report and I confine the remainder of this webpage to the results as regards climate change, mostly because it is a topic I have read about and written about, so I am keen to see how people view the topic. Short answer, "whatever”.

There were two identified global challenges, that climate change is happening and the ‘robots are coming’.

1  Climate Change: 

 93% of [British] people believe that the world’s climate is definitely or probably changing, yet only 36% of people believe that humans are entirely or mainly the cause of climate change. A majority (53%) believe that it is caused equally by human activity and natural processes, while 9% think it is mainly or entirely happening naturally. In contrast, the UN Intergovernmental Panel is again unambiguous, and notes that human action is “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause” of global warming (IPCC, 2014).  Those opinions are not independent of the age of the respondent; the younger and more educated are more worried, but that might well be more an observation of interaction with the outside world, in some sort of sense a measure of interest beyond the immediately local. 

Climate change is largely about long-run trends in global temperatures, and is not simply reflected in day-to-day experiences of the weather. It is likely that those who have had more formal education are more likely to know about it – either from having learnt about it directly at school and university, or from active engagement with current affairs fostered by their education. Given that climate change only started to attract widespread attention from the public from the late 1980s onwards, and evidence of its existence and consequences has mounted since then, there may well be age differences in attitudes to and concern about the issue. While older generations grew up without any mention of climate change, younger generations have been taught about it in school and have heard about it in mainstream media (news and entertainment) for a longer period of their lives. [2, p148]  If this interests you, do use the link to read these pages for yourself. Condensing those comments fairly heavily, climate scepticism is low in Britain and the demand that ‘something should be done’ had grown. Despite that there has been doubt on the whole in the media, some deliberate campaigns, some a sort of spillover from reporting the gap in concern about climate change between Republicans and Democrats in the US. Political differences in Britain (on climate change) are small, though UKIP has been openly sceptical, suggesting (from my reading of the report) that the politically disengaged hold different opinions – or are more easily persuaded into holding such opinions, which I would suggest is mostly a matter of trusting what a charismatic speaker says rather than thinking for themselves. Not my opinion, what I think I read. I worry a good deal about people who refuse to do thinking, and though I will agree with anyone who is refusing to think about things that do not matter to them, that merely says —I hope—that they have far more immediate worries and that a topic such as climate change is beyond their current capacity for consideration; it is not on the list of things to think about.

One of the question included in the survey asked how much one has thought about climate change before today and was analysed by age and education. I’d have responded ‘some’, the middle option, mostly because I say too much of the evidence is obvious, because it has accumulated over a long time and so I have not thought about it much because it is, to me, self-evident. A better question to ask me would have been whether I have done anything about it, where the answer would refer to what I’ve done to reduce energy consumption and carbon footprint. Such actions include: planting 600 trees in Cornwall (which the idiots who bought the place then dug up), installing solar panels on two house with a third to do soon, and raising insulation levels whenever I can so as to reduce energy consumption. So I’d say that I have taken action, albeit very selfishly so. However, in general I’d say I was out of pocket on each of those actions.

Another question asked about causes of climate change—whether natural, caused by man or a combination—and again can be analysed against age and education [once that status is established, easily done for any subsequent question2. A spectrum of response was requested, from 0 (not happening), 1 entirely natural, to 5, entirely our fault. The bulk of respondents, 85%, plumped for options 3 and 4. 

On the question whether climate change will result in significant impact on people across the world on a  scale of 0-10, none to severe, the most extreme response was from the older uneducated at 4.3 while the least was the educated young, at 2.4. So British opinion is that, what, this is a fuss over nothing? Or is it that we Brits are largely immune to this perceived change?

Understandably, in my opinion  people report that they are more worried about the cost of energy than about climate change. I see this as obvious; we can each do something about reducing our need for energy where the incentive is to reduce our direct costs; climate change falls into the same general field as Acts of God and force majeure 3

The enquiry does investigate perceptions of action when asked about the frequency of energy use there is a small but discernible difference; the under 35s, rather than doing the most, are particularly less likely to say that they do things to save energy. I wonder how much of that perception is of change rather than habit. My parents unplugged things at night because they had perceptions of a lack of safety, while I make similar actions from a perception of energy consumption (and so cost). Those who don’t pay bills directly are quite likely to be disinterested in such matters. Barely paraphrasing, it is unlikely that personal decisions about energy use are predicated solely upon ambition to reduce climate change.

The associated social survey that is done at a two-year interval across Europe, referred within [2] as ESS, went on to enquire about attitudes based on an assumption that very many people change their behaviour; if not just you as an individual changed behaviour, but ‘everybody’ did, would that affect climate change? Here, the more someone thinks that climate change is due to humans, the more they think humans can collectively do something about it. This is collective efficacy over personal efficacy, but really the difference in opinion is pretty small. [2, p161]. When asked whether they thought large numbers of people would change their energy use habits was a disappointed 3.8/10; not likely. When asked if they thought governments would take action, this rose to 4.3, still not encouraging. Overall people in Britain have some hope that climate change could be reduced, but they are not very confident that it will actually happen.

A different set of questions in the ESS went looking to see if there are correlations in political divisions. I found this response disturbing: Some 71% of Remain voters think that climate change is definitely happening, compared with just 53% of Leave voters. When it came to political affiliation, carefully asked as who one felt most affiliated to, unsurprisingly the Greens and then the Lib Dems were one end of the spectrum and UKIP the other. [2, p165]. Consider than in a background from other research on our two biggest parties (and so those likely to be in power)For both parties, only a minority support more taxation of fossil fuels, and for both parties there is majority support for both renewable subsidies and a ban on inefficient appliances. I read that as an agreement to persuade ‘them’ to spend money, not directly ‘me’. As it says in the concluding remarks [2, p168]: 

With this kind of survey we cannot properly assess if people are choosing their parties based on their attitudes to climate change, or whether parties are leading their voters towards certain views on climate change. It may also be that people are choosing parties more based on their attitudes to Brexit and related cultural issues, especially immigration. Opinion on those issues is correlated with attitudes to climate change. And so the Labour partisans are more climate-conscious than Conservatives, not necessarily because they chose their party based on environmental considerations, but more likely because their climate change attitudes go hand in hand with their Brexit and other attitudes. Although it was still on a modest scale, since late 2016 and early 2017 when the ESS took place, at both the 2017 general election and in the 2018 local elections, we have seen swings from Labour to Conservative among Leave supporters and in the opposite direction among Remain voters (Curtice, 2018). Climate change may well become more of a partisan political football because of Brexit.

I read this as saying that the relative complacency with which we view climate change is because it is far less within our ability to cause change than, say, the effects of even minor alterations in the Brexit agreement. When we look beyond our own immediate concerns, climate change is well down the list of worries.

For those who’ve read this far, here’s what the considered academic position is, taken from an early page in source [2]:

In the case of climate change there is an overwhelming consensus among the international scientific community that it is happening, that it is predominantly caused by humans and that its consequences, if left unchecked, are going to be dramatic. The most recent assessment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014) was unambiguous: “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today… warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally”

So perhaps the problem here is that until someone can explain what it is that you can sensibly do to reduce the change and especially those that affect yourself directly, this remains someone else’s problem. Rising sea levels, increased frequency of extreme weather, indirectly more instability and in consequence perhaps more issues with things like migration – there is little we can do individually. What we can do is make our own positions less likely to be affected; live somewhere where flooding won’t occur, make your house as weather-proof as possible, reduce your energy profile and your carbon footprint. Where we choose to not do such things, we must recognise that these were conscious choices; changing your most common mode of transport, for example. Or not.

DJS 20180711
Happy birthday to C.

Top pic from You.gov


1 NatCen Social Research, 35 Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0AX Charity no. 1091768, http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/
2 Except that the report does not combine the two measures; Meanwhile, for the over-65s and the least educated, only 27% think climate change is mainly or entirely caused by human activity. That is those over 65 and those least educated, not the older uneducated folk. I see this as lost opportunity  though some questions were analysed to give both aspects for view.

 3 There are discussions on this very topic. Climate change might be from natural causes or force majeure, i.e. outside the control of the parties concerned. The legal argument would centre on the fact that climate change is a well-accepted phenomenon, is foreseen with an accepted level of confidence and probability, [Oxford comma inserted] and is due to human actions. However, as yet, this has not been legally tested. [3] 

[4] says To illuminate this distinction, take the example of an outdoor public event abruptly called off.

  • If the cause for cancellation is ordinary predictable rain, this is most probably not force majeure.
  • If the cause is a flash flood that damages the venue or makes the event hazardous to attend, then this almost certainly is force majeure.
  • Some causes might be arguable borderline cases (for instance, if unusually heavy rain occurred, rendering the event significantly more difficult, but not impossible, to safely hold or attend); these must be assessed in light of the circumstances.

I recognise that design for a ‘once in a century’ event has begun to recognise that assumptions are dangerous, in the case of flooding we have changed our environment, not least in terms of water run-off, so that a bad storm barely reported several decades ago has an entirely disproportionate effect now. In a sense, it is not our data is at fault but our ability to determine what the data means now.

 However, © David Scoins 2017