Climate Sock

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.

 

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.

UK worries about climate are at a 5-year high – new analysis of climate polling since 2005

Posted in Climate Sock on May 4th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on UK worries about climate are at a 5-year high – new analysis of climate polling since 2005

UK worries about climate change are at their joint-highest level for five years according to new data published today. The government’s new poll found that 71% say they’re concerned about climate change – about the same as its poll last year and as high as any poll since 2012.

In the US worries about climate recently went reached record levels.

It might be that a Trump effect has pushed up concern in the US: his dismissal of climate change may have perversely, drawn attention to the issue. Or perhaps it reflects the accumulation of severe weather events in the US and the success of campaigners there in raising concern about it them.

For whatever reason, worries in the UK haven’t seen such a dramatic increase, but have been gradually growing for the last few years.

As far as I’m aware, this blog is the first place to have compiled this 12-year data series – which comes from the near-identical question asked in several different sources – to produce this long-running tracker of UK worries about the climate. The latest finding is from the UK government’s opinion survey, the latest wave of which is published today.

See below for the data sources and why I’m not totally happy with comparing these results – but overall I think it’s ok to put them together and compare the trend over time.

The data comes from various different surveys, some of which I don’t have the full data for:

Oct-Nov 2005 – MORI, age 15+

May 2008 – MORI, age 15+

Jan-Mar 2010 – MORI, age 15+

Mar 2011, Aug 2012, Mar 2013, Aug-Oct 2014 – MORI, age 16+

Jun-Jul 2012, Mar 2013, Mar 2014, Mar 2015, Mar 2016, Mar 2017 – TNS, age 16+

I doubt the small age variation makes much difference.

My main concern is I haven’t seen some of the questionnaires/full data tables, so it’s not clear whether there were other questions that might have influenced respondents before they were asked about climate change.

The main risk is obviously the 2005 data. Since that’s the outlier in terms of worries, it would be useful to know if anything was done differently in the questionnaire (for example, did it follow other questions about the environment or severe weather events?). All I have is a reference to the 2005 results in a report from 2010. Given it’s so unlike the other results it might be tempting to assume there’s something dubious about it – but as we saw in the US, worries about climate change were higher around 2005 so it does seem possible the data here is right. Given that, I’m inclined to believe the results are ok.

Worries about climate change are at record levels. Is this a new chapter in public opinion?

Posted in Climate Sock, U.S. on March 16th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Worries about climate change are at record levels. Is this a new chapter in public opinion?

Public opinion is rarely tidy but sometimes there are clear trends in the popular mood. A new poll suggests there has been a shift in public opinion about climate change, with a surge in worries about the threat.

Since polls began asking about climate change, worries about the issue in rich English-speaking countries (the places where denial has been prominent) have gone through the following broad stages:

Up to 2007: public discovery of the problem and increasing worries (with a peak around 2000, a fall after 9/11 and a recovery until around 2007)

2008-2010: rapid decline in worries, accelerated by Copenhagen and the 2009 email hack

2011-2016: slow increase in worries, back to around 2009 levels

The new poll – of the US public, by Gallup – suggests we may be in a new stage. Concern about climate change appears to have past 2009 levels and to now exceed all previous peaks.

2017-onwards: concern increasing to record levels (?)

Is that a justifiable conclusion?

A problem is that this is just one poll. It’s the only one I’m aware of that shows concern to now be greater than it’s ever previously been. It might be a rogue result, outside the margin of error.

But… It’s 8-points up on the previous year’s poll, and 4 above any previous. This poll would have to have been a real statistical fluke for the true level of public concern not be the highest since at least 2009.

And a different poll, from the UK, suggests something similar.

Various people have asked the “is climate change real” question (FWIW, I don’t like the question – it’s confused by political identity and doesn’t reflect what people actually want done about emissions – but these results are so striking I can’t ignore it). Since 2009 responses to this question were uncannily static. But in February this year ECIU’s poll showed a sudden jump.

So that’s more evidence that we’ve started a new chapter.

Yet I’m still not sure it’s definitive that worries are at record levels. We can probably say concern about climate change is greater than it’s been any time since 2010 – in the US at least – but there’s not enough evidence to be sure it’s at the highest level ever.

One issue is Gallup’s chart shows only the percentage that worry a great deal about climate change. In the equivalent chart last year they combined it with those that worry a fair amount. If we do the same for this year’s data, we find worries this year are no higher than they were in 2008 and are still lower than they were in 1999-2000.

So if we’re still, if not on the fence, at least within touching distance of it, what more evidence might persuade us that worries really are smashing records?

In the UK, the government’s quarterly climate and energy poll asks a question once a year on concern about climate change. The question uses the same wording that MORI has run since 2005, giving a nice comparison that will allow us to test the theory. The next wave, due to be published in late April, should ask that question, so we’ll have more evidence soon about whether concern is rising.

And in Australia, the Lowy Institute has run the same climate question since 2006 in its annual poll. The next wave should be out in June.

In both that and the UK poll, concern in 2016 was still some way below the pre-2010 peak, although the highest for a few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s data shows worries are up but not yet at record levels.

Putting it together, the evidence is clear that worries about climate change have been rising for several years. Last year concern was around where it was in the late 2000s. This year, either worries have stopped increasing or they’re moving towards record levels. It may be too early to say for sure but the initial evidence suggests concern is still rising.

Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics, Transport on September 18th, 2016 by Leo – Comments Off on Hinkley Point and grammar schools show May’s electoral priorities – and why she could have a problem with airport expansion

Approval of Hinkley Point and plans for more secondary moderns might seem unrelated – but they have a shared politics and point towards a decision in favour of expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick.

Hinkley and selective education are both unpopular with the left and with most experts. Increasing the number of secondary moderns is so evidently bad for most children that even Corbyn could take May apart on it. And although the debate about Hinkley Point’s merits is more disputed, in both cases the government will face a long battle to achieve what it’s promised.

But the political appeal for Theresa May is clear.

Her message is that this is a government that will act decisively to promote jobs and skills. Grammar schools and Hinkley convey this effectively to one of May’s key target audiences.

In YouGov’s poll from before the secondary moderns announcement, the only groups of which a majority supported new grammars were 2015 Tory voters and Ukip voters, and the over 65s. The polls on Hinkley are less useful but this recent Opinium poll found that the same three groups are the strongest supporters of new nuclear power stations.

This seems a clear sign that May’s top target in any early election wouldn’t be people who voted for Miliband last year and are now put off by Corbyn. She’d go for those who voted for Farage.

This makes electoral sense. There are 67 Labour-held seats where the combined 2015 Tory and Ukip vote was more than the Labour share. Flipping those to Tory would give a Blair-style landslide. (This is pre-boundary changes)

When it comes to airport expansion, public opinion is divided, but support seems to be strongest among the same groups who support Hinkley and grammar schools. This 2015 Populus poll found the over 65s to be the only age group in which a majority supports expansion.

If the government is prepared to force more schools to become secondary moderns – in the face of all evidence about their benefit – the fact that London airport expansion is supported by the same people makes it seem likely that the government will go ahead.

But there’s one problem that could transform the calculation.

Support for grammar schools is evenly spread across the country. Support for London airport expansion isn’t. While 52% of Londoners supported expansion in that Populus poll, among people in many other parts of the country, support is only 35-39%.

This won’t be a problem for the government so long as the decision is seen to only affect London and the South East. Many people outside those areas are indifferent – they see it as a question for London that doesn’t affect them.

But, as I found in my paper for the Campaign for Better Transport last month, building a new runway in London means airports in the rest of the country will be restricted in size. Ticket prices would go up for all flights across the country.

This is hardly mentioned in the debate. As long as it isn’t, London airport expansion will seem to most people to be a London issue – and it will make political sense for May’s government to use it to appeal to the same people who like grammar schools and nuclear power.

But of those 67 target seats, only nine are in London and the South East. If it were widely realised that London airport expansion would restrict growth in the rest of the country, the plans may be a lot less politically appealing than they seem.

 

Airport expansion is either the end of carbon budgets or the end of cheap flights

Posted in Climate Sock, Transport on August 8th, 2016 by Leo – 1 Comment

This is a slightly extended version of an article that was originally published by the Guardian.

You might hope we’d learn our lesson. But less than two month after the EU referendum, with the promised £350 million replaced by looming job losses and downgraded growth, we’re on the brink of falling for another fantasy.

This time, it isn’t the promise of a magic money tree: it’s the claim that we can build a new runway without needing to worry about our carbon emissions.

When the government’s Airports Commission endorsed the expansion of Heathrow last year it was challenged to explain how the UK could expand its airports without breaking climate change laws that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

It was a reasonable question. Like most countries, the UK has a tough emissions target for 2050 and, even though aviation has been given an easy ride compared with other industries, the sector is on course to exceed its generous limit. That’s the case even without adding a new runway. Increasing the number of flights from the UK would put the target further out of reach.

Undeterred, the commission responded with reassurance that we can build a new runway without breaking our climate limits. Its confidence seems to have put most people off looking into the details: that and the way the commission scattered, across hundreds of pages in several different publications, its explanation of how it had achieved what seemed impossible.

Analysis that I co-authored might help explain why the commission appeared so reluctant to spell out its workings. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a less popular way of winning public support for a new runway than its suggestion for how expansion could avoid breaking our climate limits.

The essence of the commission’s suggestion is simple, even if the details are difficult to pin down. It proposed that the government could allow a new runway to be built without busting the emissions cap, by hiking the cost of tickets so fewer people can afford to fly. Its idea is to build a new runway in London then increase prices so that demand for flights falls, particularly at airports in poorer parts of the country.

No one can say precisely how big the price increase would need to be to keep the country within its limits, because it depends on how quickly flight technology improves, but today’s report estimates how much more tickets might have to cost.

If technology to make planes more fuel-efficient progresses as quickly as the commission optimistically suggests, a return ticket to New York – from any UK airport, not just the one with the new runway – would become about £270 more expensive after a new runway is built. But if technology moves more slowly, as many analysts think it will, the flight could cost £850 more. Price increases like these would spell the end of budget flying; long-haul trips would be affordable only to the rich.

People worried about climate change shouldn’t kid themselves that this is a realistic solution to the emissions problems a new runway brings. It’s near-impossible to imagine the government putting such a high price on flying purely to protect the environment: after all, it couldn’t bring itself to increase fuel duty for drivers this year despite two years of falling prices. It’s far more likely that a new runway – and the rest of the UK’s airport capacity – will be used, busting our climate limits.

If the runway really is built, the best hope of keeping flights affordable without breaking our climate targets may be for the government to tax frequent fliers at a higher rate than those going on holiday just once or twice a year, so more people can still travel. This approach was outlined last year by A Free Ride and could be the cleanest and fairest answer, but would depend on a level of serious political engagement with this challenge that has so far been absent.

Sometime soon the government will finally make a decision about a new runway. To many, it seems the question of how the runway can avoid breaking our climate change law has been resolved, but in fact, all we’ve had is a series of possibilities. We should understand where the path leads before taking another step into the dark.

 

Should you believe polls of what China thinks about climate change?

Posted in Attitudes, China, Climate Sock, International on December 6th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off on Should you believe polls of what China thinks about climate change?

Some years ago I managed a few research projects that used in-depth interviews with businesspeople in various countries. In most places, our interviewers would quickly get the respondents talking, giving me dozens of pages of transcripts to work through.

But when the interviews were in China, we’d get monosyllables. However carefully we set up the questions to invite considered responses, and however much the interviewers probed, the answers were usually of just of one word; occasionally a terse sentence. After a while I began to think it was impossible to do in-depth interviews in China, at least with the approach we were trying.

I mention this because two recent climate change polls have got me wondering again about research in China, and whether the results are reliable.

After a bit of digging, which I describe in this article, I’m increasingly uncertain about the reliability of poll findings from China – specifically here polls on climate change – though I can’t go as far as to say they’re definitely wrong.

The two recent polls both showed the proportion of Chinese people saying they think climate change is a very serious problem. According to YouGov’s poll the figure is 52%, while Pew put it at just 18%.

The latter of these generated headlines about a lack of worry about climate change in China – which of course fits with a sceptic/denier narrative that richer countries shouldn’t cut emissions because China isn’t doing anything. But having looked at the polls, I’m not sure such headlines are warranted.

At first glance, it seems like at least one of these polls must be wrong. The question wording is similar, they were conducted around the same time, yet the results are way beyond the margin of error.

In fact, there may be an easy explanation here: the YouGov poll is of their panellists and was weighted to be representative of the adult online population, while the Pew poll purports to be randomly sampled and nationally representative.

Actually, if YouGov’s panel was typical of the Chinese online population, the online/face-to-face split still couldn’t explain all the difference. Apparently, nearly half of the Chinese population is now online; even if we were to make the heroic assumption that none of the offline population thought climate change is a very serious problem, we’d still end up with nearly 26% saying it was very serious from YouGov’s numbers – again, beyond the Pew margin of error.

We might instead put this down to YouGov’s panel being unrepresentative of the Chinese population in general: perhaps they’re people who are more engaged with the news or international affairs than the average person.

Except, there’s another problem.

The Pew poll is not only out of line with YouGov’s survey, it’s also different from the result Pew found last time it asked the same question: the proportion saying it’s a very serious problem has more than halved:

 China

This seems pretty weird to me. I’m not aware of such a large shift in attitudes towards climate change over five years in any country, including in the UK and US following the UEA email hoax six years ago.

For comparison, here’s a graphic I keep to hand showing the stability of UK opinion on the climate over that period.

 Climate polls

I can think of a few possible explanations for the difference in the Pew results.

The first is that there truly has been a large shift in attitudes to climate change in China. At the moment I have no way of proving this either way, but a shift of this magnitude would be unusual and should have some explanation. I can’t think of any such explanation, though there may well be something that, in my ignorance of Chinese debates, I’m unaware of.

A second possibility is that there isn’t a true public opinion about climate change in China. This would fit with John Zaller’s view that public opinion mostly doesn’t exist: people only have ‘opinions’ on many issues (perhaps not on all issues, though) when they’re asked to express their view, for example by a pollster. At that point, they sample from the, perhaps contradictory, opinions they’ve previously heard and accepted. This is a recipe for volatility: people’s opinion one day may not be the same the next, and they’re easily swayed by what they hear from elites.

This would perhaps explain the volatility from 2007-2009 as well as the change from 2010-2015, but it doesn’t feel seem it can be the full picture. It’s not clear why China’s population would show such volatility while those in other countries would have more stable views. Perhaps climate change is talked about much less often in China than it is in other places, so people have less opportunity to form fixed opinion there. Again, I don’t know enough about Chinese debates to settle this, but given that Chinese respondents seem to say ‘don’t know’ to climate questions less often than people in other countries, I’m not convinced. It’s also not like most people in the UK or US hear or talk about climate change very often, anyway.

A third option is that Pew got super unlucky with their sample. With a perfectly sampled poll, one in twenty will produce a result that’s outside the margin of error, relative to the true value of public opinion (if such a thing exists). Through no fault of the samplers, Pew might have just happened to pick the people who really aren’t worried about climate change. This is possible – and maybe China has such diversity of opinion between areas that the sampling approach is more prone to this kind of bad luck – but they’d have to have been supremely unlucky for this to explain the size of the gap (unless particularly factors in the structure of Chinese opinion make it more likely).

This leaves a fourth option – changes in sampling – which I’ll discuss in more detail.

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