Have the floods finally got Britain worried about climate change?

This winter’s floods ­– eventually – brought climate change to the centre of UK politics for the first time since Cameron was hugging huskies. When they weren’t staring furiously at flooded villages, both Miliband and the Prime Minister linked the floods with climate change and warned of serious future threats.

But did the floods have any effect on public opinion about climate change? A piece by Ros Donald for Carbon Brief points to data that suggest they did – with big increases in the numbers saying climate change is one of the main issues facing Britain.

This form of question is probably the crucial test for opinion on climate change. For years, a consistent majority have agreed that climate change is real and a problem: when asked directly about it. But what matters more is whether many people think of climate change as a priority for action when compared with issues like jobs and the health service.

Ros points to two polls that show, following the floods, many more people are indeed now saying climate change is one of the main issues for the country.

A regular tracker by DECC found 22% saying climate change is one of the country’s top three challenges, up from 10% two years ago. I have some serious issues with this tracker – it’s overpriced, some of the questions are so badly written as to be unusable, other questions pointlessly measure every three months things that will change on a timescale of years at least – but this particular question is broadly fine.

Ros also spotted a YouGov issues poll that picked up a jump in concern about the environment: from 9% in late January to 23% in mid-February.

For the intersection of poll and climate change nerds, this is exciting stuff. Big shifts in public opinion don’t come around very often. Being around to see one is enough to make a guy like me nearly forget the dictum for enthusiasts that, in nearly all cases, most people are paying far less attention to the subject of your enthusiasm than you think they are.

So has there really been an awakening to the urgency of climate change? Maybe. But probably not really. Here’s why:

I commented on Ros’s article when she was writing it and have now had time to look a bit deeper at the data. One problem is, the two polls in Ros’s piece don’t tell the full story. The DECC poll gave respondents nine issues to choose from, asking them to pick up to three. This meant the average score of those nine issues was 32%. In context the score of 22% for climate change looks less impressive; had more issues been included on the list it would have scored lower again.

Equally, the YouGov poll has been updated with more recent data and now tells a less dramatic story. After the spike in concern about the environment in mid-February, the latest poll shows it much closer to where it was before the floods, though still a little higher:

But the best measure is MORI’s issues tracker. Unlike the others, this allows respondents to name any issue they want, rather than making them choose from a list. It’s more work to conduct but is probably the best way of finding which issues people are really thinking about.

The result is still an increase in concern about the environment, but a smaller one: since December last year it’s been named by between 7-10%, its highest level since the end of 2009 (coinciding with the Copenhagen conference and the UEA email release).

One final and separate problem with all these polls is that they ask about issues facing Britain today. I probably wouldn’t say climate change is one of the three main issues facing Britain today, yet I still think it’s important we act today to mitigate it. So if I were polled, should I say it’s one of the main issues facing Britain today? I’m not sure.

(tl;dr) The upshot is that the polls all show that worries about the environment increased around the winter floods. At its peak, roughly twice as many said they thought climate change or the environment is one of the top issues facing Britain as had said that before the floods. The issue’s dropped a bit since then, but for now is still a bit higher than it was before .


Comments are closed.