Public opinion on climate change

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
January 30, 2013, 12:00 PM GMT+0

No public consensus on extreme weather links to climate change

US President Barack Obama was cheered by environmental groups recently for dedicating a notable chunk of his inauguration speech to the subject of climate change. Citing the “devastating impact” of extreme weather events, he proclaimed that even those who “deny the [allegedly] overwhelming judgment of science” should be swayed by the “raging fires…crippling drought and more powerful storms” of recent years.

According to recent YouGov polling in Britain and the United States, however, there is no public consensus on the assertion that extreme weather events are linked to the effects of man-made climate change, with strong conservative opposition in the US and significant British uncertainty towards the claim.

As part of on-going research with Cambridge University on attitudes to climate change, YouGov surveyed two nationally representative samples – of 1971 British adults and 1118 American adults – in January this year.

In both samples, respondents were asked:

“Thinking about global warming and climate change, which of these statements comes closest to your view?”

Option 1: I believe we are seeing the effects of man-made climate change in recent extreme weather events.

Option 2: I don’t think we can say whether or not we are seeing the effects of man-made climate change in recent extreme weather events.

Option 3: I don’t think recent extreme weather events are connected to a changing climate.

Options 4/5: None of these/ Don’t know

British opinion divided, with significant Tory scepticism

The British public is broadly divided on the question: 40% of respondents believe extreme weather events are linked to man-made climate change, while 36% think it’s impossible to say. (Just 13% say extreme weather events are not connected to a changing climate.)

Results further show a conservative-to-liberal scale of increasing certainty about climate change/weather event links: 32% of Conservative supporters, 48% of Labour supporters and 51% of Liberal Democrat supporters chose: “I believe we are seeing the effects”, compared with 48%, 34% and 26% from those parties respectively saying “I don’t think we can say”.

Nearly 40% of US Republicans say no link between weather events/ a changing climate

Results in the United States show a greater proportion of the public overall than in Britain who believe extreme weather is linked to the man-made effects of climate change, with 45% saying “We are seeing the effects”, compared with 22% who say “I don’t think we can say” and 17% saying “I don’t think weather events are connected”.

However, American public opinion shows stark differences between the political left and right.

According to results, just 19% of US Republican Party supporters believe “we are seeing the effects of man-made climate change in recent extreme weather events”, compared with 70% of Democrat supporters.

US Republican supporters further stand out when compared with the British public. Even though British results show notable differences among supporters of the three major parties, they also show consistently small numbers across all demographic groups who are certain that extreme weather events are unconnected to a changing climate. For example, this option was selected by 13%, 11% and 15% of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters respectively.

By comparison, 37% of Republicans said there was no connection between climate change/weather events, versus only 3% of Democrats who said the same.

The British generation gap

In further contrast between the two electorates, British public opinion shows a generation gap in attitudes, which is absent from US results.

Older Britons are notably less likely to believe that extreme weather is linked with a changing climate.

Where 41% of respondents aged 18-24 in Britain chose “I believe we are seeing the effects of man-made climate change in recent extreme weather events”, only 28% of those aged 60+ said the same.

Where 28% of those Britons aged 18-24 said “I don’t think we can say”, 48% of those aged 60+ said the same.

As Professor Douglas Crawford-Brown, Director of “4CMR” – the Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, commented:

“These results are eye opening for those of us with a mission of assessing and helping deliver on climate policies. We know that meaningful environmental action takes place only when highly public events remind the world of the impacts we have on the environment. The YouGov results of offer a ray of hope, in my view, that people are beginning to make a connection between recent weather events affecting their lives and the more academic discussion of climate change. But the results also show that the critical mass of people making that link is not yet here, and that increasing public support for climate action will require bridging the widening divide between political parties in all nations”.

See the YouGov-Cambridge British sample survey results

See the YouGov-Cambridge US sample survey results