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

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:

An understandable reaction to this would be for Ed Davey to think that trying to engage with the public on climate change is more trouble than it’s worth.

But the question is one of authenticity. The polls show the great distrust of politicians talking about climate change when their motives aren’t clear. The public, used to doubting politicians on all subjects, may often think that the politician talking about climate change is using the issue to reposition themselves as socially responsible for electoral gain, or is using it as cover to bash business.

Nevertheless, there remains an opportunity for the politician who provides honest leadership about the risks, costs and returns of taking action, to respond to the public’s desire for the issue to be taken seriously.

  1. Biff Vernon says:

    This week DECC opened the 27th round of offshore petroleum licensing, offering licences for offshore oil and gas exploration and production in the UK administered part of the North Sea. The associated press release described this as “new opportunities for UK oil and gas exploration” … which “ensures the UK gets maximum benefit from our resources.” The Energy Minister Charles Hendry said “With around 20 billion barrels of oil still to be extracted, the UK Continental Shelf has many years of productivity left.”
    Given the UK’s commitment to carbon dioxide emission reductions and the global agreement to limit warming to 2°C, do we need to spend time, money and energy exploring for more oil and gas to extract from the North Sea? More at

    Ed Davey needs to decide whether he wants to burn the rest of the fossil fuel or mitigate global warming. He can’t have it both ways.

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