Is Giddens right about the Climate Change paradox?

In the introduction to his The Politics of Climate Change, Anthony Giddens describes what he, somewhat immodestly, refers to as ‘Giddens’s Paradox’:

since the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible, many will sit on their hands and do nothing of a concrete nature about them. Yet waiting until they become visible and acute before being stirred to serious action will, by definition, be too late”.

We can test whether or not the first part of this is true, using a question that appears quite often in the polling data. A number of firms regularly ask questions to identify the most important issue of the day, giving a good sense of the relative importance attached to climate change. Looking at these numbers, we see that Giddens’s Paradox doesn’t always stand up to scrutiny.

Firstly, let’s be clear that these ‘most important’ questions aren’t quite the same as what Giddens is talking about. They explore relative importance of issues, rather than willingness to take action. However, since people are generally unlikely to take action unless they see an issue as relatively important, the ‘most important’ questions should work as an indication of whether action is likely.

A second problem with the polling data is that the questions tend to be phrased in a way that encourages respondents to think only about immediate and visible problems (for example, “What would you say is the most important issue facing Britain today?”), which probably understates the climate change numbers (a question like “What would you say is the most important issue that Britain should be addressing today?” might give quite different scores). Therefore, to test Giddens’s Paradox, we should be looking at how and when the scores change, rather than focusing too much on the level of the figures themselves.

This phrasing of the question may well explain why, in data from MORI, pollution/environment combined has been named as an important issue (not even the most important issue)  by fewer than 1 in 5 every month since June ‘97, and in 121 of those 139 months, by fewer than 1 in 10.

So this isn’t a major issue that people currently consider to be facing Britain now. But the scores have been higher in recent years. Two peaks in the numbers naming pollution/environment stand out in the MORI data.

The first was in November ’00, when the score for pollution/environment suddenly jumped to 14% after seven months of 4-5%. Why did it happen?  Because this was the wettest autumn on record, and much of Britain flooded, often described at the time as evidence of climate change. So the supposition of Giddens’s Paradox, that people can be stirred into action by visible climate change, appears to be borne out.



Even so, this doesn’t show whether or not Giddens was right to imply that only visible climate change would stir people to action. Indeed, the second peak suggests something different.  In January ’07, the numbers picking out pollution/environment reached 19%: the highest level to date. Unlike the last peak, this wasn’t driven by freak weather but rather by the media coverage of the Feb ’07 IPCC Report, and the debate around this and the Stern Review. So, counter to Giddens, it’s not just visible climate change that can stir people into action; public discussion of the issue can do the same.

Equally, it looks like it’s not the case that visible climate change inevitably stirs people to action. When Britain was again flooded in Autumn ’07, there was no repeat of the November ’00 peak. I suspect this was influenced by the country looking elsewhere at the time, with the first rumblings of the credit crunch.

So Giddens may be right that people are more likely to be stirred into action by climate change that’s tangible, immediate and visible. But other factors, particularly the media coverage, are at least as important; it seems that freakish weather alone may not inevitably change perceptions, and may not even be necessary to make climate change seem a pressing issue.

[1] By way of comparison with other issues, pollution/environment is well behind the usual suspects in the most recent MORI data: economy (49%), race relations/immigration (33%), unemployment (27%), defence/foreign affairs/international terrorism (25%), crime/law & order (24%),  among others.

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