Is Britain top of the scepticism league?

In this week’s Economist, there’s a bold assertion casually dropped into an article about the cold winter*: “Britain’s scepticism about climate change … [is] already more widespread than in many other European countries”.

Leaving aside the escape route that ‘many’ provides, it’s quite a claim, and one that I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence for. So what defence can we make of it?

The annual HSBC Climate Confidence Monitor is a good source of international data on attitudes to climate change. It asks consistent questions in a decent number of countries (currently 15 countries), so gives us results that can be measured between countries and over time. This year’s results have recently come out, and are available here.

But before we look at the results, there’s something we need to talk about. Across the world, people respond to survey questions in ways that differ consistently from country to country. In some countries, people are generally more likely to choose upper points on a scale, and in other countries, people tend to stay closer to the middle. In my experience, we see a much higher proportion of people choosing upper points on a scale in China than we do in Germany, for example.

This matters a great deal when we’re comparing international data sets. Because of this difference in international scale-usage patterns, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair, for example, to look at a poll that shows 75% in China saying they’re very worried about climate change, and compared that with 60% in Germany who say the same, and conclude that more people in China are worried about climate change than in Germany.

It’s much safer to look at the kinds of questions that avoid scale-usage patterns. While a question like “On a 7-point scale, how worried are you about climate change” would be subject to scale-usage patterns, a question like “Which of these issues are you most worried about” wouldn’t be, because interviewees have to select just one of the issues.

This brings us back to the HSBC data. There is indeed a question in the poll that avoids scale-usage issues: a list of issues, with interviewees asked to select which is their top concern.

Looking specifically at climate change, the results indeed suggest that it is seen to be a lower-ranked concern in the UK than it is in most other countries:

But this doesn’t prove the Economist’s claim. Firstly, the data only cover three European countries, and Britain is statistically level with France so only behind Germany. Secondly, we’re looking at relative level of concern (compared with the economic crisis and terrorism, among others), not levels of scepticism.

This might all seem pedantic, but there’s an important point, especially now that the media are returning to the subject of climate change, scepticism, and these are challenging the government’s mandate for taking significant international action. There’s a common assumption in the UK that levels of rejection of climate science are high, and growing. But, as we’ve seen before (for example here) and again today, there’s not all that much evidence for to back this up – despite the repeated assertions to the contrary.

*Though mercifully, not one that argues that the cold weather proves that there’s no such thing as global warming – a trend nicely mocked by the Daily Mash the other day.


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