While world leaders meet in Durban for the UN Climate Change Conference, in Britain the debate around climate change has hit the headlines for another reason. Following the 2009 ‘climategate’, which saw thousands of climate change science emails leaked online, a second batch of emails were leaked from the University of East Anglia’s archives a few weeks ago. While the media reaction has not matched the furore over the first ‘climategate’, the flames have been fanned for the ongoing debate between climate-change believers and climate-change sceptics.
But how concerned are the British public on the whole about climate change? In my chapter on the Environment, part of the British Social Attitudes 28th Report, I found that scepticism around environmental issues has grown over the last decade. Back in 2000, 24% thought that many claims about environmental threats were exaggerated, but by 2010 this proportion had grown to 37%. Likewise, in 2000 35% said it was definitely true that use of coal, gas or oil contributed to climate change, only 20% said the same in 2010.
While scepticism has increased, concern about environmental issues has declined – now less than half (43%) say that climate change is “very” or “extremely” dangerous to the environment, and only 28% say that pollution from cars is dangerous to the environment (compared with 54% in 2000).
Changing perceptions of environmental issues may not only be down to an increased scepticism; the ongoing economic woes of the country are having an affect too. We found that those in the lowest economic groups were the most likely to have changed their mind about the danger of climate change and car pollution. Meanwhile people are now less willing than a decade ago to make financial sacrifices for the sake of the environment.
It is not clear how the two causal factors of economic hardship and increased scepticism interact with each other. Has growing scepticism meant that people are now unwilling to make economic sacrifices for a cause they are no longer convinced by? Or have economic difficulties meant that, for many, it is simply easier not to believe in climate change when faced with more immediate personal pressures?