Why public opinion about climate change is important

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on September 20th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The Climate Majority is published tomorrow. You can buy it from the publisher, New Internationalist, or from Amazon etc.

This was originally published by Birkbeck.

You could look at the news and think climate disaster is now inevitable. Each of the last three years has, one by one, been the hottest on record. A consequence of that was visible with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were made more destructive by oceans that had been warmed by human emissions. All of this has happened with the world only having warmed by perhaps a third of what it will this century if emissions don’t fall.

But you could also look around and think the world is finally dealing with climate change. For the first time, global emissions have stopped increasing, not because of a recession, but because of efforts to deal with the threat. Nearly every country has committed to limit their emissions, in an agreement that anticipates national commitments will strengthen over time.

Both views are right. Climate change is now here and is killing people. And the world is dealing with it more seriously than ever before. But which path will win out? Will the world eliminate emissions within a generation as it should if it is to prevent dangerous warming? Or will its efforts falter, emissions continue at their current rate (or even increase), and the planet respond with increasingly ferocious storms, heatwaves and droughts?

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, looks at one of the factors that could make the difference – and how those of us who are worried about climate change could swing the balance.

While the world has done better than many predicted in halting the increase in emissions, its progress has depended on changes that have imposed little burden on most people. The most important of these has been the closure of coal power plants, and cancellation of new plants, which are increasingly being replaced by lower-carbon sources like gas and renewables.

But eventually, the world will exhaust relatively painless changes like this. At some point, the only remaining emissions cuts – which will be crucial for avoiding dangerous warming – will be from activities that directly affect many people in their day-to-day lives.

Two of the most challenging of these are flying and meat-eating. The world is going to have to radically cut emissions from both – but in the two areas, emissions look set to increase. Without action, either could effectively make it impossible for the world to prevent dangerous warming.

Achieving these harder, but essential, emission cuts won’t be possible without public support. Yet, at the moment, that support wouldn’t be forthcoming. It’s not that many people deny climate change: no more than 20% do, even in the US. The more important problem is that many people, perhaps half the population, understand that climate change is real and a threat, but just don’t think about it very much and don’t understand why they would need to change their lives to deal with it. Without their support, crucial emission-cutting measures will fail.

My book looks at the people who are apathetic about climate change and investigates why they think what they do. It explores how human psychology and the ways climate change is often described have made the problem seem distant, unthreatening, and a special interest of left-wing liberals.

And the book looks at what we can do to overcome apathy. There’s no magic word that will make the world act on climate change, but there are ways we can persuade those who are apathetic that it is worth making the effort to deal with the threat. It’s still possible to tip the balance away from disaster.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

 

Extract from The Climate Majority – why climate apathy matters

Posted in Climate Majority on September 19th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Business Green have published an exclusive extract from my book. You can read it here.

And, if you like the sound of it, you can buy the book here.

 

No-one wants to talk about it but stopping extreme climate change will mean eating less meat

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Meat on September 17th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist.

Earlier this month Jeremy Corbyn made headlines in a new way – expressing interest in becoming vegan, after being a vegetarian for decades. Although he later denied he was considering the switch, the episode provided a glimpse of a conversation that few people want to have – but which we can’t keep putting off if we are to avoid extreme climate change.

Campaigners have been trying to persuade the public to eat less meat for years. It’s more than four decades since Peter Singer’s consciousness-awakening book Animal Liberation was published. The Vegetarian Society has been going four times as long. Over those years, there have been countless exposés of cruelties in factory farms and of the damage that farming can do to the local environment, and doctors increasingly warn of the risks of eating too much meat.

But if the aim of all this was to reduce meat consumption, those efforts have failed. Vegetarianism might now seem part of mainstream culture rather than an eccentricity, but there’s little sign that more people are quitting meat. Nor is there evidence that many people are reducing the amount they eat – data suggests individuals around the world are eating steadily more of it. Even in the US, where meat consumption per person fell during the Great Recession, consumption is now rising again. It looks like economics was the driving force, not ethics.

The world won’t prevent extreme climate change if it doesn’t deal with this. Meat and dairy production is responsible for around a seventh of all of human greenhouse gas emissions. If this continues, livestock emissions alone will exhaust the world’s ‘carbon budget’, the amount the world can release before committing to the dangerous warming threshold of two degrees celsius, within around 100 years – even if every other source of emissions is cleaned up. And, with farming emissions set to grow 30% by 2050, meat and dairy may burn through the budget even faster.

There are solutions to this. There’s been a shift in tastes, with chicken becoming more popular and beef becoming less so. This has cut emissions – beef warms the planet about four times as much as chicken. But the switch has been so slow that population growth means the total amount of beef eaten is still rising. And, though cleaner than beef, chicken is still several times more polluting than vegetarian alternatives.

Technology might help. Meat substitutes like the vegan Impossible Burger, which release a fraction of the emissions of beef, could make a switch more palatable. As a recent convert to being mostly vegetarian I’ve found that even the limited range of meat substitutes now available help me cut down on meat, as vaping does for smokers (though I’m still far from convinced by cheese substitutes: they’re fine in cooking but on a cracker are about as appealing as their plastic packaging).

But technology won’t fix the problem on its own. Even if vegan alternatives keep getting better, most people will need more motivation to switch. As long as the substitutes are neither tastier nor cheaper, many people will wonder why they should stop eating cheeseburgers.

This could be one of the hardest problems the world will have to face as it tries to avert extreme climate change. Other possible ways of cutting emissions – like switching from coal to clean power, or ditching inefficient fridges – bring obvious benefits and are supported by most people. But it will be much harder to persuade nearly everyone to cut down on something they enjoy for the sake of the climate, when arguments about health, animal welfare and the local environment have failed.

My bookThe Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism, sets out some of the ways that more people could be persuaded to do so.

The surprised response to Corbyn’s comment demonstrates how far public debate still has to come. If this is one of the world’s hardest problems, it’s also one of the most ignored – few people outside the green movement are prepared to admit that consuming less meat and dairy is necessary. All Corbyn did was saying he’s considering changing his own diet. Imagine the outrage if he’d suggested that others should do the same or mooted taxes on high-carbon foods.

But we can’t put off confronting the consequence of our diets for much longer. Cutting emissions is only getting harder, as targets get tighter and easier measures are ticked off. Soon we will have to look at our plates and admit it won’t be possible to prevent extreme climate change as long as we keep filling them with cheese and meat.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 31st, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

This was originally published by Red Pepper

Radio 4’s Today programme has been criticised for once again interviewing ex-Chancellor Lord Lawson about climate change, which he denies is happening. The show interviewed Al Gore about his new documentary An Inconvenient Sequel and seems to have felt it should balance Gore’s call for action with the opposite view.

The peer was predictably contrarian. He wrongly said climate scientists believe the world’s weather is getting no more extreme and in a moment of straight-up climate denial, said temperatures have fallen over the last decade (in fact, each of the last three years were the hottest on record), while the interviewer, Justin Webb, made no attempt to challenge these errors. The transcript (and rebuttals) are here.

No doubt there will be complaints about the segment. These complaints might even be upheld – this is exactly the kind of ‘undue attention to marginal opinion’ that the BBC Trust criticised in its 2011 review of science coverage.

But even if a complaint is upheld, can we expect the broadcaster to change? After all, it’s been through exactly this before. In 2014 the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit agreed that Today was wrong in its handling of an interview with the same guest and the same presenter, when Lord Lawson’s denial was presented as of equal standing with climate science.

The BBC doesn’t seem to have learned from that mistake and it’s not obvious that it will learn from this one. But the problem isn’t particular to the BBC – it’s with climate change and how it’s described.

Suppose you’re a producer and you have a story about some warning of how bad climate change will be and how essential is that the world cuts emissions. It’s an important issue, so you agree to run an item on it.

But it hardly sounds new and risks being a bit dull. How can you generate tension to show your audience that there are disagreements and decisions to be made? You won’t get that tension if you invite on Friends of the Earth. So instead you call up someone – like Lord Lawson – who will baldly reject the core of the story and will guarantee a fight. It’s terrible for public debate but it’s a much better spectacle than two people agreeing about how awful climate change is.

An upheld complaint about this latest climate denial might make a producer think again for a while. But sooner or later they – or their successor – will need to spice up some dull but important climate change story and will look for an obliging Tory peer.

It doesn’t have to be like this. There are plenty of disagreements about climate change that are far more interesting and important than fabricated rows about whether it’s happening.

One example is about who will be able to fly as the world cuts emissions. Even allowing for efficiency improvements, restricting emissions from planes means limiting flights – a major challenge as increasing affluence will mean more people want to fly. How should we do this? It could be done by putting up ticket prices, which would mean poorer people fly less. It could be done by restricting capacity – the Airports Commission’s recommendation of Heathrow expansion counts on not expanding other UK airports. Or, if the burden is to be distributed evenly, perhaps there should be an allowance system for flights tickets.

There are arguments about what to do as the effects of climate change grow more and more severe. When more land is flooded by rising sea levels and increasingly ferocious storms, which areas should be protected and which abandoned, and who pays the bill? And what help should be given to people living in poorly designed housing that will cook when heat waves become longer and more extreme?

And nuclear power divides those who are worried about the climate. Some argue it is an indispensable technology that doesn’t produce a large volume of greenhouse gases and can be counted on to produce electricity on a large-enough scale to replace coal and gas plants. But some environmentalists are appalled by nuclear power, seeing it as no improvement on coal. This is a contentious question of priorities – where costs, safety and hazardous waste are balanced against the need to cut emissions quickly.

What’s important about these arguments is they give the tension a producer needs, without depending on disagreements about whether climate change is real. They entirely take place between people who accept that cutting emissions is crucial for the world to avoid dangerous warming – but they aren’t boring. If these debates become the questions that journalists ask about climate change, deniers will have to either catch up or find that they are no longer invited to take part.

These disagreements are already happening between climate policy specialists but they’re rarely aired in public. If we’re to stop the BBC calling up a denier for the next story about climate change, those of us worried about the issue need to show that there are far better subjects for a fight.

The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism will be published on 21 September by New Internationalist.

 

Newsweek’s climate change hypocrisy

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 11th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist

On the magazine’s cover is a heart-shaped drop of lush forests fringed with yellow sand that meets a sea so turquoise you can imagine spotting turtles and technicolour fish from space – or relaxing with a cocktail before slipping into the warm sea.

But Newsweek wants you to know that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Its special issue, now in the shops, warns that climate change threatens this island paradise, along with 99 other equally magnificent places.

It may seem admirable that a mass-market global magazine has dedicated a photo book to showing what climate change will mean for some of the world’s most beautiful places. As it says: ‘if climate change continues unchecked, many of the world’s wonders are in danger.’ But there’s a catch.

At the same time as declaring its concern about climate change, Newsweek encourages its readers to cook the planet. The magazine doesn’t just document the threatened wonders so readers can learn about them from a distance – it also describes its special edition as a ‘travel guide’.

The issue has been published before and Newsweek was previously more restrained in its promotion of air travel. In 2010 readers were encouraged only to ‘remember’ the threatened places before they disappear. But by 2014 – and again now – it suggested readers should ‘explore’ them.

In the fight to stop extreme climate change, flying is like a steadily growing tumour. For now, international flights only produce around 2 per cent of carbon emissions, but that’s set to change. While nearly every other sector is making plans to slash emissions, airlines are preparing to release more and more greenhouse gases. By 2050, flying could have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget – and its share will only increase as the world tries to cut emissions further.

So it’s naivety at best, hypocrisy at worst, for Newsweek to draw on its readers’ love of long-haul holidays to sell a magazine that laments the impact of climate change. But it would be unfair to single out Newsweek – this is a problem with almost all mainstream conversations about the issue.

Most mainstream politicians and media organizations no longer deny the reality of climate change. Yet on the question of what the world needs to do to deal with the threat there is almost complete silence. This is particularly the case when it comes to anything that might require sacrifices, like flying and eating meat. Who, outside the green movement, is prepared to admit that tackling climate change will be difficult?

And so we find ourselves in the bizarre position where a magazine can show off its virtue by encouraging its readers to fly to a drowning island.

 

‘Issue for the left’: how climate change can shake this tab

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 8th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This was originally published on Climate Home.

A new poll shows the view that climate change is mostly a left-wing concern is prevalent and problematic. It’s time to change the conversation.

“Climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left.” From some people that might have been a celebration of how progressives have united in the face of global warming. But US vice-president Mike Pence didn’t mean it as a compliment. For him, linking climate change and the left was a way of delaying action.

The idea that climate change is a left-wing plot should be easy to refute. Concern about rising emissions are visibly not restricted to anti-capitalists. This year alone, warnings about climate change have come from members of the not-left-wing community that include Walmart, US secretary of defence James Mattis, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

But Pence wasn’t shooting in the dark. A new opinion poll shows he was tapping into a widespread belief that people on the left are more worried about climate change. The poll, conducted by the research agency PSB for my book, The Climate Majority, and reported here for the first time, reflects a problem that could stop the world doing what’s needed to avoid dangerous warming.

The survey asked people in the US which type of person is most likely to be worried about various issues. Across the range, climate was the issue most identified with liberals, more than both inequality and housing. Respondents were more than twice as likely to say that liberals are most worried about climate change than that a person’s political views don’t make a difference. It was seen as the most partisan of all the issues tested: the perceived liberal skew of climate change was greater than the perceived conservative skew of immigration, national debt and defence.

This is a problem for efforts to avoid dangerous warming. As long as climate change is thought of as a partisan battleground, it will be hard to persuade enough people that it is a serious threat.

Mike Pence knows this. He was following the strategy that Republicans have used for more than 20 years, of casting doubt on the motives of people who warn about climate change. His immediate audience may be conservatives, but the people who really matter are those in the centre. His aim is to persuade them that climate change is a matter of debate between entrenched partisans, with the truth somewhere in the middle.

The delaying strategy has worked quite well so far. The difficulties of passing a climate deal through the US Congress delayed the arrival of an ambitious international climate deal for years. And while the US has cut its emissions recently – by around 9% in a decade – it started doing so later than many other rich countries and its emissions are still around their mid-1990s level.

But while polarisation has already slowed action, the greatest problems are still ahead. Past emission cuts have mostly come from relatively easy areas like improving efficiency and switching from coal to gas. Eventually these will be exhausted and further emissions cuts will have to come from areas closer to most people’s day-to-day lives like food and transport.

So long as climate change is seen to belong to the left many people will be tempted to think the threat is exaggerated and that such changes can’t really be necessary. In that case, how can the polarisation be ended?

First we should emphasise that worries about climate change aren’t in fact restricted to the left, whatever the perception might be. Respondents in the opinion poll were asked how they themselves see each issue, as well as how they think other people see them. And while liberals were indeed the most likely to be worried about climate change – 82% said they were – moderates were also widely concerned, with 73% saying they were worried about it.

So the challenge isn’t to persuade moderates to worry about climate change: they already do. Instead, the task is to stop them thinking that climate change worries people on the left more than it worries other people. That isn’t going to be achieved with more trench warfare between left and right – that only increases the appearance of partisanship.

Instead, we should change the subject. The question of how the world could deal with climate change is full of controversial possibilities, yet most of these controversies are ignored. Among these ignored debates are: whether the best way to reduce polluting activities like flying is to put up the price, meaning only richer people do them; whether communities should have the right to veto cheap renewable energy projects; whether land should be used to grow energy crops at the risk of increasing food prices; and whether the government has a duty to protect all communities from rising sea levels.

What these many controversies have in common is that they provide conflict about climate change without depending on disagreements about whether global warming is real or on only using voices from the left. The debates would show that people from across the political spectrum consider climate change a serious threat, while being contentious enough to interest non-specialists.

The beauty of this approach is it makes it impossible for Mike Pence and his colleagues to maintain their pretence that climate change is a left-wing issue. Instead of talking about whether the world should deal with the problem, the debate moves on to what it should do about it. People whose only argument is that climate change is a left-wing interest would have nothing to say on the debate. Either they engage with the new controversies or they become irrelevant.

Mike Pence and his allies are slowly losing the fight on climate change. Many of them have already had to abandon the claim that climate change is a hoax. But the issue is still seen as a left-right battleground, which persuades many in the centre that it matters much less than it does. A slow victory isn’t enough if the world is to cut emissions quickly enough to prevent disastrous warming. If we are to speed up action, we should try changing the subject.

New poll: climate change is seen as the most left-wing issue – full results

Posted in Climate Majority on July 31st, 2017 by Leo – 6 Comments

While researching for The Climate Majority I ran a poll with PSB to look at:

  1. Which issues are seen as being concerns of left- or right-wing people
  2. Whether that perception matches the reality

This post sets out the results of the poll. I also have a comment piece today in Climate Home, which discusses its findings.

We conducted two separate polls, in the UK and the US. The questions were essentially the same, except for small differences in language. Full data is available here.

The poll was based around eight of the most high-profile public policy issues. For each issue we asked:

  1. Regardless of your own political views, what kind of person do you think is generally most worried about the following issues?
  2. How worried are you personally about each of the following issues?

In both countries, climate change is one of the issues that worries the most people. Healthcare is comfortably top (the polls were conducted in November-December 2016, so before the latest US healthcare debates but also before Trump increased attention to climate change) but climate is in the next group, along with immigration and crime. It’s a bit higher in the list if we look only at how many people are very worried, but not much lower if we also look at those who are somewhat worried. Either way it sits along issues that are usually considered of national importance.

Focusing now on the US:

Climate change is widely seen as an interest of liberals in the US. Along with inequality, it stands out as being perceived as the issue about which concern is most restricted to liberals. It is also seen as the one with the greatest partisan skew: 46% think liberals are the people most worried about climate change, compared with 41% thinking conservatives are the people most worried about immigration.

Now onto the reality of who actually is worried about each of these issues.

It’s true that climate change (along with inequality) worries liberals more than other people. That’s particularly the case if we look at who’s very worried about each issue – though less if we look at who’s also somewhat worried about each. In terms of the gap between liberals and other groups, climate change is the most skewed… but there’s a crucial caveat to that:

Despite the skew, more moderates are very worried about climate change than are very worried about most other issues. Even if we also look at somewhat worried, it’s still a top concern of moderates – not just of liberals.

So, a reason the skew looks so big is because conservatives are mostly unworried about it. Liberals are more worried about the issues that are heavily associated with conservatives (defense, immigration and national debt) than conservatives are about supposedly liberal issues like climate change. This is arguably more a story about conservatives being notably uninterested in climate change than liberals being unusually interested.

So in the US, climate change is seen as a liberal issue but it’s actually one that liberals and moderates are widely worried about. It’s only conservatives who are generally not worried.

And now looking at the UK:

The most striking result is that polarisation in the UK is much less than in the US. While climate change is often seen as a left-wing issue and immigration as a right-wing issue (and so on) most issues are mostly seen as having no political skew. That is, in most cases a plurality think that people’s political views make no difference to whether they are worried about the issue.

And finally, on what people in the UK actually think about the issues, we’ve got a similar picture to the US, but one that’s less dramatic. Climate change is quite polarised, although a bit less than inequality is and less than climate change is in the US…

… but one reason it’s less polarised in the UK is that left-wing British people are less worried about climate change than US liberals (this isn’t because the poll defined US liberals more narrowly than the UK left – in fact it took 28% in the US as liberals and 18% in the UK as left-wing). Conservatives / right-wing people are similarly relaxed about climate change in both countries. The polarisation seems to be less in the UK because the British left are, generally, somewhat less worried rather than because the US right are so opposed to dealing with it (although that ignores a separate point that the US right includes people who are much more vituperative in their opposition to dealing with climate change than most of the UK right are).

My book, The Climate Majority, looks at the consequences of climate change being seen as a left-wing concern – how that limits action to cut emissions, and how those of us worried about the problem can overcome the polarisation.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism

Posted in Climate Majority on July 29th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

I’m really pleased to be able to announce that I have a book coming out.

It’s about how public opinion limits action on climate change and what can be done to overcome climate apathy.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism will be published by New Internationalist on 21 September. You will be able to buy it directly from the publisher, from Amazon or of course from your local bookshop.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

“The Climate Majority” is not about the climate deniers or the climate activists. It’s about apathy, about those who don’t talk about global warming – the billions of people who have heard plenty about climate change and acknowledge there’s a problem, but who are just not engaged enough to stimulate the change required to stop it. 

This is the first book to investigate climate apathy, to describe how it prevents action to stop climate change and to show how it can be beaten with an approach developed for political campaigns. Drawing on opinion polls, psychological research and examples of successful campaigns from across the globe the author asks ‘Who are the ‘swing’ voters?’ ‘What do they think and why?’ and ‘How can we talk about climate change in a way that will provoke action?’  

Preventing extreme climate change is one of the hardest tasks humans have ever faced. Rising nationalism and the US plan to withdraw from the Paris agreement are blows to progress. But only by influencing those who have, so far, remained outside the debate will we have a chance of building a climate majority to back the measures required to avoid disaster.  

It’s the product of more than two years of intensive researching and writing – but also of the many more years I’ve been running this site (including Climate Sock before it). I’m immensely grateful to everyone who’s read and commented on the site over the years and those who have told me they’ve found my writing to be useful. Without that feedback it’s unlikely that I would have persevered.

Where UK politics stands at the summer break: Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on July 27th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I was on Polling Matters this week for the last episode before the summer break, with Keiran and Rob Vance.

We talked about where things stand in UK politics now, including polling showing that the Tories are now seen as more divided than Labour, Chuka Umunna’s recent tweet that seemingly challenged the Labour leadership’s position on Europe. We looked at what polling on Brexit tells us about public opinion on the subject and indeed whether public opinion even matters on the issue given the relative lack of difference in policy on Europe between Labour and the Tories.

We finished by discussing what we will be looking out for when Westminster returns in the autumn.

You can listen to the episode here:

Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s most popular politician – Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on July 19th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

On Polling Matters this week, Keiran and I discussed an exclusive Polling Matters / Opinium poll, which measured the favourability / unfavourability of a series of front-line politicians. The results were very interesting, including that Corbyn was, comfortably, the UK’s most popular politician – but he was also polarising, with many people very unfavourable towards him.

You can listen to us talking through the results here: