How can you convince the UK to care about climate change?
I’ve been arguing for a while that there’s been too little done to explain to the British public why they should care about climate change. If the problem is seen only to affect animals and people in other countries, campaigners will struggle to win mass support for action to tackle climate change. It has to be made real and personal, or many people just won’t care enough.
But that raises a difficult question. If people don’t already think that climate change will affect them and their family, how do you persuade them they should care?
Fortunately, a mega poll by MORI for Defra provides some answers and the starting point for what a campaign could look like.
According to the UK Climate Risk Assessment, the two most important climate risks facing the UK are flooding and summer heatwaves; I will focus on these as the possible bases for a campaign. However, the poll shows a radical difference in how they are perceived.
It won’t come as much of a surprise that most people in the UK think that flooding is the main risk from climate change (bear with me – it gets more interesting).
The chart below shows the proportion who think flooding has already become more frequent and the proportion who think it will become more frequent by 2050 – and the same for heatwaves. Flooding easily wins out:
Perhaps this is a product of how heatwaves and floods are distributed. Different parts of the country suffer floods at different times, and most serious incidents get news coverage – while heatwaves tend to hit the country in one go, so coverage is more concentrated. So floods may just be in the news more often*.
But I don’t think that’s the full explanation, and here’s where it starts to get interesting.
A later question asked respondents to move on from considering the likelihood, and to say how concerned they’d be if the UK actually experienced these changes. The results are similar: far more people would be worried by more flooding – in fact, more people say they wouldn’t be concerned by heatwaves than that they would be:
So, even if a campaign succeeded in convincing more people that, as it were, summer is coming, most people wouldn’t be that bothered by the prospect. The point is superbly encapsulated in ITN’s presentation of the deadly heatwave this summer. A few hundred people may be dying, but overall everyone’s basking in it and generally having a nice time:
I take two main conclusions from this for campaigns about UK responses to climate change.
Firstly, if someone were to start a campaign now about why people in the UK should want action on climate change, the obvious choice would be flooding. People believe it’s already happening, that it’s going to get worse, and that its worsening would be a major problem. While the poll also shows most people don’t think they personally are at risk from flooding, they’re still concerned and there’s nothing else that has so much legitimacy at the moment.
However, this isn’t to say campaigners should forget about heatwaves. Because another question shows that the conjuction fallacy is affecting the results**. The principle of this fallacy is that people often think that a specific condition, described in detail, is more likely than a broader condition, which is not described in detail, but which the specific condition is an example of.
In this case, we’ve already seen that people don’t think heatwaves are very likely. But when you give them more details about what you mean – make it real – by spelling out the impacts of a heatwave, the proportion who think it’s likely becomes much greater. There’s no equivalent change with flooding, perhaps because most people have already thought about what it means:
Even with this effect, heatwaves are still seen as less likely – but the gap is much smaller, and the following question that tests concern about these specific impacts finds no difference between the described-in-detail floods and heatwaves.
So the case may not yet have been won for why people in the UK should really care about tackling climate change, and flooding looks like the strongest ground for developing the argument further, with the potential to be credible and effective. But with some work to demonstrate the connection between the principle and what it means in practice, there’s no reason heatwaves can’t ultimately be part of a campaign as well.
* Another factor is that the poll was conducted in the middle of another flood-ridden winter, which probably did swing the numbers a bit – but I doubt enough to explain all the difference.
** I’ve totally read Daniel Kahnemann.