Public attitudes to Climate Change and Energy

13/12/17

Questions measuring attitudes towards climate change and energy were fielded in Round 8 (2016) for the first time. In our latest post, Professor Wouter Poortinga (Cardiff University) explains why we need to gauge public opinion in this area.

Global climate change is one of the major environmental threats the world is currently facing. The ways in which individuals, governments and the international community respond to the threat is to a large extent contingent on the public views about the reality and consequences of climate change.

The fundamental shifts in energy use and production that are needed to mitigate climate change can only be met by sustained public support for action.

There are however large differences in public understanding of climate change and the willingness to take and support action. Public perceptions tend to vary across countries and cultural-political groups and also fluctuate over time.

Various studies have tried to understand the complexities of public opinion on climate change. Psychological research has shown that the willingness to take individual action is largely dependent on concerns about the environment and personal norms.

Views on climate change appear to have become politicised. In particular in the US, national surveys show increasing polarization according to political ideology and party identification.

While in the UK politically conservative and disengaged groups are more likely to express a climate sceptical view and less likely to support action on climate change, there is no evidence for further polarisation over time.

Variations across countries and time are perhaps more difficult to explain, primarily due to a lack of good quality cross-national and longitudinal data. Several explanations have been put forward to explain increasing climate scepticism, including a loss of trust in climate science, the economic downturn pushing aside concerns about the environment and the media giving too much attention to climate sceptics.

Research indicates that extreme weather events, such as flooding, can influence public views on climate change, and a number of studies have shown that temperature anomalies are associated with public beliefs in the reality of climate change.

The importance of socio-economic factors is shown by research that climate change directly competes for public attention with other day-to-day concerns, such as the state of the economy.

Evidence for media effects in climate perceptions is however less clear, although climate scepticism in terms of media coverage and public opinion appear to be largely an Anglophone phenomenon.

The climate and energy module that is part of Round 8 of the European Social Survey is specifically designed to create a comprehensive, theoretically-grounded dataset that will help to make robust comparisons of Europeans’ perceptions of climate change, energy security and energy preferences.

This comprehensive dataset will help to provide a better understanding of how such perceptions are shaped by individual and socio-political contextual factors.

Professor Poortinga led the Questionnaire Design Team who developed the Climate Change and Energy module. You can now view or download Round 8 (2016) data collected in 18 countries who took part in the survey.