Do women really oppose fracking because they don’t understand science?

Posted in Communications, Energy sources on October 23rd, 2015 by Leo – 1 Comment

The new chair of the fracking industry body has annoyed a lot of people today by apparently saying women oppose shale gas extraction because they’re driven by instinct, not facts.

In the Times (£) interview (also quoted here), Professor Averil Macdonald said “women have not been persuaded by the facts [about fracking, and] more facts are not going to make a difference… They know that they don’t know and they don’t understand… we have got to understand the gut reaction… women are always concerned about threats to their family more than men. We are naturally protective of our children.”

It’s ok if you want to take a few seconds to smash everything.

Back with me? Right, let’s look at the facts.

First, are women less supportive of fracking? It certainly seems so. The latest YouGov/Nottingham poll finds 58% of men in favour, compared with 32% of women. The DECC tracking poll (the one I think is too expensive) finds a similar split*, and a YouGov/Sunday Times poll shows an even bigger gap.

So, the first part does look to be true: women are more likely to oppose fracking.

Secondly, are women less likely to be persuaded of the facts about fracking?

Since the facts about shale – like whether it causes earthquakes, contaminates drinking water, will cut energy bills or reduce our emissions – are disputed, it’s hard to say whether women accept the ‘facts’.

What Professor Macdonald presumably means is that women tend not to be persuaded by what she considers to be facts, ie that fracking is safe and generally a Good Thing.

If that was all, her comments perhaps wouldn’t be that controversial: she’d be saying women don’t support fracking because they disagree with the industry’s arguments. But that wouldn’t be very interesting and she’s, understandably, had a go at explaining why. Hence the claim, “they also know that they don’t know and they don’t understand”, so they go on gut instinct.

This, we can partly test. The Notts poll provides a bit of evidence for it: 85% of men correctly identify the process of ‘fracking’ as producing ‘shale gas’, compared with 65% of women.

This tells us only a little. At best, it shows that men are more likely to be aware of the terms relating to shale gas: it doesn’t say anything about their understanding or acceptance of the ‘facts’ relating to it.

What’s more, other polls show that men are more likely to claim to know things they don’t. When Carbon Brief tested recall of climate stories last year they included some made-up stories as a benchmark. For the most ‘recalled’ of those fake stories, men were a third more likely than women to say they’d heard it: about the same proportion as the difference in the shale question. So, some of the apparent evidence for men knowing more about shale could be to do with women being less willing to guess when they’re not confident. This can’t explain all the gender gap though, as you’d expect many of the winging-it men to get the wrong answer about shale gas.

But, this notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to go along with Professor Macdonald so far: women are less likely to support fracking and seem less confident than men in their knowledge about it.

That’s not enough though. Macdonald suggests a causal link: she argues women don’t support fracking because they know that they don’t know much about it, and so they go with their feminine instincts to protect their families and oppose such things.

There are a couple of problems with this (leaving aside the massive claim that women care more about their families than men do. Show me evidence or don’t make such big claims.)

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Should new energy minister Ed Davey talk to the public about climate change?

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on February 4th, 2012 by Leo – 1 Comment

Britain has a new energy and climate change minister. Ed Davey will have a packed ministerial in-tray, and among the files about nuclear power, shale gas and feed-in tariffs will be the question of how, if at all, the public can be engaged on the need to deal with climate change.

Fortunately a new Ipsos Mori poll for Climate Week shows what the public think about climate change, and gives some idea about the communications options open to the new minister.

In short, the British public are worried about climate change, are prepared to take action, and believe that their collective action can make a difference. But they think that more time is spent talking about climate change than addressing it and are particularly suspicious of politicians who they hear on the subject.

The results of the poll may come as a surprise to some, after the British Social Attitudes survey in December seemed to suggest that Britain was becoming less concerned about climate change. But that survey may have been picking up reactions against left-wing green activists in general, rather than any disagreement that climate change needs to be addressed.

The new survey supports that interpretation. It shows clearly that people are concerned about climate change, feel motivated to take action themselves, and think that domestic actions will make a difference:

But if the public think that action is needed to address climate change, they don’t believe that enough is being done. Nearly two thirds (64%) agree that “there’s a lot of talk about climate change but not much action”.

This present a challenge for the new climate change minister. A response to the fact that the public want action and don’t think enough is being done could be for him to get in the TV cameras and cut the ribbon on a wind turbine factory.

But the new poll also suggests that politicians are among the least trusted group to talk about the issue. Just 3% say they would most trust politicians’ views on climate change, putting them at the same level as religious leaders and the royal family. All trail far behind scientists, who are on 66%.

The level of distrust of politicians in general is such that even when they are trying to do what the public wants – tackle climate change – they still struggle to cut through the cynicism that surrounds their motives. As we have seen before, the immediate reaction of many is that politicians use climate change as an excuse to raise taxes and draw attention from other issues:

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This time it’s personal

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on April 17th, 2011 by leo – Comments Off on This time it’s personal

A nice little paper was published last month in Nature Climate Change, which needs to be taken seriously by anyone campaigning on climate change.

The paper draws on the 2010 poll by the Understanding Risk Group, and shows that “those who report experience of flooding express more concern over climate change, see it as less uncertain and feel more confident that their actions will have an effect on climate change”, and that “these perceptual differences also translate into a greater willingness to save energy to mitigate climate change”.

That is, people who’ve had first-hand experience of something that could be attributed to climate change, care more about it and are more willing to act to stop it.

The difference in views between those who’d experienced flooding and those who hadn’t is clear:

Firstly, on the question, “How concerned, if at all, are you about climate change, sometimes referred to as ‘global warming’?”

And secondly, on the questions: ‘I can personally help to reduce climate change by changing my behaviour’; ‘I am uncertain that climate change is really happening’; and ‘My local area is likely to be affected by climate change’:

(Reproduced with permission)

Nowhere is the gap vast, but it’s always statistically significant. The message is clear: personal experience of the impact of extreme weather makes people more likely to think that climate change is worth tackling, and that it can be tackled.

All of which is a pretty clear lesson for anyone campaigning on climate change.

But a selection of campaigning videos raises questions about this:

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Enter Carbon Brief

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on February 8th, 2011 by leo – 1 Comment

Mid-way through last year, there was a series of articles and discussions about how climate campaigners could be more effective at promoting their message in an environment where they seemed to be under more attack than ever before.

A sense of the concern at the time comes across from articles like Bob Ward’s piece in New Scientist (behind a paywall, though I wrote about it here) and Guy Shrubsole’s article on Left Foot Forward.  The latter refers to Oxfam’s analysis of how the Climategate claims were spread by people who don’t believe in climate science, which formed another part of the discussions. Some of the intensity may have ebbed slightly (at least this is my sense), but nothing fundamentally has changed.

One of my conclusions from these conversations was that there was a real need for an organisation that was both an online hub and a communications unit that  reacts quickly and effectively to stories that affect public perceptions of climate change.  Although Climategate may not have had much direct impact on public attitudes towards climate change, it certainly demonstrated that there are few people ready and willing to react to breaking stories about climate change in order to help journalists to get the accurate information they need.

It may be that this is beginning to change – enter Carbon Brief. Launched this week, for now it’s small, but it’s mission is potentially very influential. According to the website, Carbon Brief fact-checks stories about climate science online and in the press. We provide briefings on the people and organisations talking about climate change, and we produce background materials on science issues and news stories.

If they build a name for themselves, and become a key contact for journalists throughout the media (not just the friendly ones), as well as a resource for bloggers, Carbon Brief could be very interesting to keep watching.

Is it wrong to campaign on climate change?

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on November 8th, 2010 by leo – 2 Comments

There’s a debate that’s just resurfaced about the value of public campaigns about climate change. Roughly speaking, one side is arguing that the only way to get people to take long-term sustainable action on climate change is to persuade them that it’s a really important issue, and if they don’t take action, very bad things will happen to the world’s climate, and this will make life miserable for a lot of people.

The other side says that even though these conclusions about climate change may be true, there’s no chance that everyone (or even nearly everyone) will go along with this, and it makes far more sense to persuade most people to adopt low-carbon behaviours for reasons not to do with climate change – usually because it’s cheaper, or reduces the need to rely on nefarious foreign places for energy supplies.

The latest round of this argument has come in the November edition of the Campaign Strategy newsletter, which takes issue with the recent Common Cause report, published by WWF in partnership with others. Roughly speaking, Common Cause takes the second view, and Campaign Strategy the first.

The Campaign Strategy authors draw on a New York Times article about energy efficiency in Kansas (well worth reading), to make the point that in areas where climate change disbelief is high, behaviour change is best framed in terms of other benefits, rather than in terms of the environment. The article even suggests that using fear of climate change as a motive for adopting low-carbon behaviours may in fact hinder action for some people. The environment has become so politicised as a topic, some will actively reject any argument in which it is mentioned.

This chimes with some of what we’ve seen in previous data. Earlier this year, an Angus Reid poll showed that, of those who had said they thought global warming was an unproven theory, nearly two thirds were still satisfied with attempts to cut worldwide emissions:

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Where we are now

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on October 3rd, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

With the number of polls I’ve written about here, it’s been a while since I’ve taken stock of the different results and what we can learn from them. Fortunately, MORI have produced (a few months ago) a handy collection of slides, which brings together a lot what we’ve seen into a single place.

For regular Climate Sock readers (yep, both of you), most of these points will look pretty familiar – but hopefully still a useful reminder.

My conclusions from the charts are:

Level of concern

Climate change and the environment in general isn’t a major issue on most people’s radars.  It doesn’t come high in the list when people are thinking about the issues that affects their day-to-day lives. However, it does become more significant when it’s prominent for external reasons: severe weather attributed to climate change; positive media attention (e.g. around the Stern report).  Equally, it can be less of a concern for the opposite reasons. Indeed, the dates for the fieldwork for a number of the charts – early 2010 – have, I believe, reduced some of the scores for action on tackling climate change. So comparisons with 2005 and 2008 look worse than I suspect they would have been if the fieldwork had been a couple of months later.

I think this suggests that people generally don’t reject the idea of climate change as an important issue. When they’re reminded about it, it reappears as something important. But most of the time, most people aren’t affected by it at an emotional level, any more than most people in rich countries are affected emotionally by food security in the global South apart from when starvation makes the TV screens.

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Is climate change too academic?

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on September 26th, 2010 by leo – 3 Comments

Here’s an issue that, I think, says a lot about the challenges facing anyone campaigning or trying to move policy on climate change. Gallup’s annual tracker on climate change has a set of answers which suggests that climate change continues to be seen as a relatively abstract issue, and not something that affects people’s lives in a tangible way.

First, to the numbers. The Gallup poll asked Americans how concerned they are about various environmental issues, covering pollution, biodiversity loss, and global warming. Of all the issues polled, global warming provoked the lowest level of concern (fieldwork March 2009):

For anyone who thinks that global warming/climate change is the greatest environmental threat to human development, these results should be quite worrying. They suggest that the seriousness of climate change is not very well understood in comparison with more proximate threats like pollution. As the basis for public campaigns about climate change, that is not very helpful.

Why should global warming be so far down the list, given the extent of coverage about it in comparison with the other issues on the list (this isn’t to assert that climate change receives an appropriate amount of coverage – simply that it tends to receive more than other environmental issues)? I think two factors are driving this.

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Blog Nation presentation

Posted in Climate Sock, Communications on June 27th, 2010 by leo – 1 Comment

I was at the excellent Blog Nation conference in London this weekend, organised by Liberal Conspiracy. While I think it’s hugely important that tackling climate change shouldn’t be seen as a party political, or a left/right issue, the conference was a good opportunity for leftish bloggers and campaigners to talk about plans for the next few months and years.

Sunny at Liberal Conspiracy was kind enough to give me a platform to garble at the conferees for a few minutes, and here’s the short presentation I put together:

Blog Nation presentation

The gist of my argument (going with the slides above) was:

There are two major issues in public perceptions of climate change in the UK at the moment. The first is to do with understanding and enthusiasm/engagement. While climategate etc has only had a fairly limited impact on perceptions, and while only very few are convinced that man-made climate change isn’t happening, as many as two-thirds are unconvinced that climate change is a big issue. This is a substantial proportion, suggesting a widespread lack of enthusiasm among the public about the issue.

The second challenge is to do with who the public are hearing about climate change from. At least in the UK, politicians are the group who are most visible talking about climate change, but they’re also the most distrusted. So even where people are generally quite willing to take action, or make lifestyle changes, to deal with climate change, they’re very suspicious when they hear politicians saying that they should do so.

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Making the case for tackling climate change

Posted in Climate Sock, Climategate, Communications, Media on June 13th, 2010 by leo – 4 Comments

There’s an excellent article in a recent New Scientist, which makes a powerful case for rethinking the way climate change is communicated. While the article, by Bob Ward, is controversial, and may jar with a lot of climate scientists and communicators, much of what we’ve seen here in the public opinion data bear him out, and his conclusions seem sound.

The article starts with the assertion that climate scientists’ reputation has been damaged by the challenges to the analyses of the IPCC and UEA’s research teams. This is plausible, though I’m reluctant to accept the direct comparison made with the damage suffered by the Roman Catholic Church and the UK Parliament over the last couple of years.

It’s true there’s been some decline in conviction in the UK that man-made climate change is happening, but I’m yet to see evidence that this was a direct consequence of the stories about the IPCC and UEA. The polls around the time of the coverage of the UEA email hack suggested little change in public opinion; it wasn’t until the freezing winter that the numbers really moved (though: post hoc ergo propter hoc – this doesn’t prove that the cold weather caused the shift). It may indeed be the case that scientists have become less trusted as communicators about climate change, but as far as I’m aware this hypothesis hasn’t yet been proved.

Nevertheless, Ward’s broader argument still stands. Even if lack of trust in climate scientists is not necessarily itself a major issue, there clearly is a problem. Public interest, belief, and commitment to tackling climate change appear to be fairly malleable, and are affected substantially by short-term factors like the weather – rather than by developments in the science. The activities of critics of climate research are also effectively keeping alive the question of whether or not man-made climate change is happening, to a greater extent than may be justified. On top of this, politicians appear to be the main group who are heard talking about talking climate change, yet they’re also the group who are least trusted to do so.

As Ward argues, climate science is making a mistake in “hunkering down and hoping for the best”. Instead, it should learn from how other organisations have recovered from similar challenges. Quoting from a PR strategist at Weber Shandwick, he suggests a course of action that’s quite different from the approaches that appear to have been taken recently:

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