Despite any potential impact from Climategate, Britons still trust scientists and climate experts more than other groups to tell the truth about climate change.
Results also show a stable and overwhelming consensus who believe the planet is warming and that humans are either wholly or partly to blame. This is despite a decline since the onset of economic crisis in the number of those who are interested in the issue or attach high urgency to it.
The last half decade has brought new challenges for environmental activism, it seems, at a time when the combined effects of prolonged economic crisis and scientific scandal have arguably taken their toll on the movement.
According to YouGov’s annual tracker of British attitudes to renewable energy, overall public interest in the climate change debate has seen consistent decline since the onset of the banking crisis five years ago. In 2008, according to results, 72% of the British public described themselves as interested in the issue of “global warming and climate change” (n=4449). By the time YouGov fielded its latest wave of the study in 2012, this figure had fallen to 59%, while the number of those who were “not at all” or “not very” interested had risen from 26% to 39% (n=4009). The same study also shows a significant fall in the number of people attaching high urgency to the issue: 37% of respondents in 2008 described global warming and climate change as a serious and urgent problem needing immediate action. By 2012, this has fallen to 27%.
In each case, trend-lines see a prominent drop in concern for climate change in the period from 2009-2010, during the most intense phase of the Climategate scandal, when emails were leaked from some of the world’s leading climate scientists allegedly suggesting that standard academic practice might have been circumvented to substantiate evidence for global warming.
Between 2009 and 2010, the percentage of Britons describing themselves as interested in the issue dropped sharply by 9 percentage points from 71% to 62%, compared with smaller shifts of 1-3% among other waves. The percentage of those calling it an urgent problem requiring immediate action shows a similar pattern, dropping by 9 points from 37% to 28% between 2009 and 2010, compared with little or no fluctuation among other waves.
Despite potential effects of recession or furore, however, recent YouGov polling suggests that when it comes to telling the truth about climate change, the British public still trusts senior academics in climate science, as well as scientists in general, more than other groups or organisations. In the latest wave of an annual YouGov survey to support the Masters Degree Programme in Environmental Policy at Cambridge University, results also emphasise just how strongly the British public believe that global warming is taking place – and that human activity is either wholly or partly to blame.
Table 1 shows the British hierarchy of public trust in thirteen groups or organisations to tell the truth about climate change, according to consecutive waves of the same survey in 2012 and 2013. The only groups that are trusted a “great deal” or “fair amount” by a majority British public in these results are “scientists in general”, “senior academics in climate science” and the BBC.
Table 1: “Generally speaking, how much do you trust the following to tell the truth about climate change?”
Great deal / Fair amount
Not very much / Not at all
Great deal / Fair amount
Not very much / Not at all
Scientists in general
Senior academics in climate science
The United Nations
Journalists on "upmarket" newspapers
The European Union
Liberal Democrat politicians
Journalists on "mid-market" newspapers
Journalists on red-top tabloid newspapers
Fieldwork for 2012 was undertaken between 6-7 February, 2012, and total sample size was 1651 British adults. Fieldwork for 2013 was undertaken between 10-11 February, 2013, and total sample size was 1691 British adults. The surveys were carried out online. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.
Ranking order remains notably consistent from first to second years of the study. Next in order are the United Nations and environmental campaigners with a more ambiguous show of confidence. Respondents are near divided in both years between those who trust the United Nations “a great deal/fair amount” or “not very much/not at all”. A small majority give environmental campaigners a negative score in 2012 (52% saying “not very much/not at all” versus 39% for “a great deal/fair amount”), which evens out to 47% versus 44% respectively in 2013.
The remaining groups or organisations on the list get a consistently poor trust score from a majority of the British public across both years: journalists on upmarket newspapers are followed by the European Union and Labour/ Liberal Democrat politicians, with Conservative politicians vying with mid-market newspapers for third and fourth place from bottom, while red-top tabloids and oil companies, perhaps predictably, get the lowest show of trust on the issue.
But although Britons lack faith in various key institutional voices on climate science, and while recent years may have seen a decline in the overall public priority afforded to environmental activism, these same results also show a stable and overwhelming consensus of people who accept – or believe depending on your view – that global warming is occurring and that human activity is mainly or partly to blame. In results for 2012, 81% of respondents overall said either the “the planet is warming and human activity is mainly responsible” (20%), or it is “warming and human activity is partly responsible together with other factors” (61%). Results for 2013 are broadly similar, with 83% overall saying the planet is warming with humans either mainly (26%) or partly (57%) responsible.
It’s too early as a time-series study to see if small changes between these waves belong to bigger trends – but watch this space for updates from the YouGov Tracker on trust in climate science.
See full results of YouGov’s annual tracker of British attitudes to renewable energy