Archive for December, 2011

Exclusive: concern about climate change has increased in the last year

Posted in Climate Sock on December 15th, 2011 by Leo – 3 Comments

New data suggest that there has been a significant increase in UK concern about climate change.

A Globescan tracking poll has been asking respondents globally how worried they are about various issues. Until now, only global-level data have been published, but the UK data are now available and show that the decline in concern about climate change seen in 2010 has partly been reversed in this year’s poll.

While the climb in those who say that climate change is a very serious problem, from 43% to 49%, does not restore concern to the level of 2007-2009, it indicates that concern about climate change is not in steady decline.

The findings also support other polling from 2011, reported here, which indicate that 2010 was an unusually low point in UK concern about climate change.  This is particularly relevant for understanding the findings of the recent British Social Attitudes survey, which was conducted during that period.

Sample size was 499 (making this year’s increase significant) and fieldwork was conducted between July-September.

Why the dip and the (partial) recovery?  I’ve never been convinced that the UEA email story was a direct cause of doubts about climate change because the fall in concern happened well after the news broke, and was also replicated in other countries where it wasn’t news.

Previously I have suggested that the cold winter could have been to blame, but this is also hard to square with the international decline when global temperatures were unusually high around that time.

The economy is the most obvious answer for the dip, but it can’t explain why there should now have been a recovery, unless there is some effect of the shock of the crisis wearing off and people starting to think about other things, for which I haven’t seen any evidence.

One final possibility is that although the UEA emails might not have cut through to the public generally, they may have created an environment where global media have been more doubtful about climate change. This could then have filtered through to public attitudes, and so affected opinion. Perhaps that kind of coverage has begun to tail off and so its effect has reduced, though I haven’t seen evidence for this either.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that concern about climate change has climbed since last year’s low point. This should influence how older polls, like the British Social Attitudes survey, are interpreted, as well as undermining the view that steadily fewer people are worried about the issue.

Climate change: the Social Attitudes survey is old news, but the lessons are important

Posted in Climate Sock on December 11th, 2011 by Leo – 5 Comments

Climate scepticism is on the march, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, published last week. The findings indicated that there’s less support for green taxes now than there was in 2000, and more doubt that climate change poses a threat.

The findings are important but the survey has one great drawback that has been consistently overlooked. It is that the research was conducted well over a year ago: mostly in the summer of 2010.

Why this is so important is because we already knew concern about climate change had fallen in the winter of 2009/10. There was plenty of polling and analysis around then that told us exactly that; this research adds more detail but doesn’t come as a surprise.

Importantly, we’ve seen more recent data that suggest that concern has increased since 2010. A poll in the Guardian in January this year showed attitudes had returned to their pre-2010 level.

Polling from the US has suggested something similar. And most recently, an international poll by Globescan powerfully reflects the same picture – that 2010 was an unusually low point:


We should be cautious then about assuming that the changes in attitudes shown by the British Social Attitudes survey all still hold true.

But doesn’t mean we should ignore the findings.

It is no doubt still the case that people are less willing to make sacrifices to tackle climate change when they are feeling under economic pressure. The British Social Attitudes findings are clear that only around a quarter would be willing to pay much higher prices or taxes for the sake of the environment.

Even if views have rebounded since then, this is the message that the government is hearing. Hence in 18 months, it has moved from Cameron’s announcement of “the greenest government ever” to Osborne’s claim “we are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers”.

But much polling about climate change can be a poor guide to what people want the government to do.

The term ‘climate change’ seems to have taken on a political meaning separate from anything to do with science and risk. Instead, it’s taken by many to represent a left-wing world view, justifying high taxes and dislike of business.

While many in this group do believe that something needs to be done to address the threat, they won’t associate themselves with the views of green activists. So when answering surveys, they say that the threat of climate change has been exaggerated and they wouldn’t be willing to pay more taxes to cover it.

But they also say that they want action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Borrowing more to borrow less may not be political suicide

Posted in Politics on December 5th, 2011 by Leo – 3 Comments

In his Times column last week(£), Daniel Finkelstein made a bold assertion:

“Plan B is incomprehensible to most people. Ed Balls ended up yesterday arguing that we are borrowing too much and that the way to borrow less is to borrow more… I promise you, this is never going to work politically. Ever.”

If Finkelstein is right, political factors are restricting the fiscal options open to the UK, regardless of the economic justifications or consequences.

Crudely, there are two broad visions of how the government can help the economy to recover.

The coalition’s view is that reducing government spending now will reassure the markets that we have a credible plan to pay off our debts, and the smaller state will also encourage private sector activity, stimulating growth.

An alternative view is that cutting government spending prevents growth, which not only means it will take longer to recover, but also risks scaring the markets about our ability to pay off our debts. Only more spending now, relying on more borrowing, can stimulate the growth that will allow Britain to turn the corner.

Both strategies have plenty of supporters and opponents, including among those with prestigious economic credentials. To preclude either approach, just on the basis of its being too politically unworkable, would be an alarming way to tackle an economic crisis. Yet this is exactly what Finkelstein says has happened.

The polling is tricky to untangle because the alternative plans can be described in such a variety of ways. However, the general picture suggests that the ‘borrow more to borrow less’ approach may not in fact be politically impossible.

Lord Ashcroft’s recent poll found 60% support the government’s plan, and 40% an alternative. But that alternative approach is sold short in his poll. It’s described as slower cutting to reduce the pain, leaving out the argument that more spending could stimulate the economy and avoid worse problems induced by stagnation. The 40% figure is thus lower than a more balanced description would produce.

A more useful guide is a question periodically included in YouGov’s polls for the Sunday Times. Since July they have asked whether the government should continue with its strategy of reducing the deficit, or whether it should change strategy to concentrate on growth. It’s a fair summary even if it doesn’t cover the full arguments.

Tracking this question shows there has been a significant movement towards the ‘concentrate on growth’ argument, and this now has more supporters than the ‘tackle the deficit’ strategy:


It’s interesting to see how this movement works out across the parties’ current supporters. Tory voters haven’t changed their view much, and Labour supporters have only slightly hardened their own view. But the danger for the coalition is that Lib Dem voters are now much less convinced about the government’s strategy:


Yet this still doesn’t tell us whether the alternative is a politically viable strategy. Even if a ‘borrow more now’ plan had public support, it might not be treated kindly by the media or even the markets. And our electoral system requires more than piling up votes among heartland supporters.

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