In this week’s Economist, there’s a bold assertion casually dropped into an article about the cold winter*: “Britain’s scepticism about climate change … [is] already more widespread than in many other European countries”.
Leaving aside the escape route that ‘many’ provides, it’s quite a claim, and one that I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence for. So what defence can we make of it?
The annual HSBC Climate Confidence Monitor is a good source of international data on attitudes to climate change. It asks consistent questions in a decent number of countries (currently 15 countries), so gives us results that can be measured between countries and over time. This year’s results have recently come out, and are available here.
But before we look at the results, there’s something we need to talk about. Across the world, people respond to survey questions in ways that differ consistently from country to country. In some countries, people are generally more likely to choose upper points on a scale, and in other countries, people tend to stay closer to the middle. In my experience, we see a much higher proportion of people choosing upper points on a scale in China than we do in Germany, for example.
This matters a great deal when we’re comparing international data sets. Because of this difference in international scale-usage patterns, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair, for example, to look at a poll that shows 75% in China saying they’re very worried about climate change, and compared that with 60% in Germany who say the same, and conclude that more people in China are worried about climate change than in Germany.
It’s much safer to look at the kinds of questions that avoid scale-usage patterns. While a question like “On a 7-point scale, how worried are you about climate change” would be subject to scale-usage patterns, a question like “Which of these issues are you most worried about” wouldn’t be, because interviewees have to select just one of the issues.
This brings us back to the HSBC data. There is indeed a question in the poll that avoids scale-usage issues: a list of issues, with interviewees asked to select which is their top concern.