The limited impact of Climategate

A new Mori poll has just been published, which gives more data on the impact of the recent stories about climate science. The most notable headline from the new survey confirms what we saw in the BBC poll last month: that belief in climate change has fallen over the last year.

Yet, belief that climate change is a reality is still high, despite this drop. Indeed, the changes in public attitudes appear so far to have been restricted to this question of whether climate change is real: there has been less movement in questions about what causes climate change, and how it can be stopped.

The new poll is the latest wave of an annual online tracking survey about climate change. From wave to wave, the interview methodology and a number of questions are kept consistent. This is handy for measuring changes over time as we don’t have to worry about the impact of different question wordings or varying interview methods.

The only methodological doubt I have about the poll is that they only interviewed people aged 16-64. I don’t know why they chose to do this, since there’s no reason older people can’t be interviewed online. But while cutting out older people is unhelpful, they did the same in 2009, and we’re most interested in changes over time, so the results of the poll are still interesting.

The polls were commissioned by a communications agency called Euro RSCG, who in doing so have handily given us a wealth of data that, now being publicly available, we can draw a lot of information from.

Surprisingly, given the media’s appetite at the moment for stories about falling belief in climate change, only the Guardian seems to have picked up the poll – though they made up for the lack of coverage elsewhere by reporting the poll twice, two weeks apart (here and here).

The focus for both Guardian articles is drawn from the question about whether or not people believe that climate change is a reality. The wording of the question in this year’s poll is: “To what degree do you believe that climate change/global warming is a reality?

As with the BBC poll, which I wrote about previously, the results suggest that over the last year people have become slightly less convinced that climate change is definitely happening. Between January 2009 and January 2010, there was a 13-point drop in the numbers saying “It is definitely a reality” and a 9-point increase in those saying “I think it’s a bit over-exaggerated”.

While the change is striking, there are a couple of points that put this in perspective.

Firstly, a 13-point drop is significant – both statistically and politically. Something has happened over the last year that has made people less convinced that climate change is definitely happening. But at the same time, 91% still think it’s happening to some extent. This has only dropped by 4% since last year.

Secondly, the wording of the question changed between the two polls. In the new poll, the subject was “climate change/global warming”, rather than just “climate change” as it was in 2009. This isn’t great practice at the best of times, but since the fieldwork was conducted from 15-18 January – in the middle of Britain’s coldest winter for 31 years – the addition of the words “global warming” may well have pushed some towards doubting whether it’s a reality.

There’s more to suggest that this dip in belief in climate change was in part caused by this winter’s weather. Positive answers to the question “would you say that you/your family have noticed the effects of climate change?” have declined from 56% to 47% in the last year. This suggests that some people’s perceptions of the climate is being directly affected by short-term weather, and that the cold spell (and perhaps the non-appearance in 2009 of a Barbeque Summer) has directly reduced their belief in climate change.

Nevertheless, given both this poll and the BBC data, there does look to have been some decrease in belief that climate change is a reality.

However, the results also indicate that the movement in attitudes has so far been fairly superficial. Once we look beyond belief in climate change and move onto exploring people’s understanding and reactions, we see much more limited movements.

On the question of what climate change is caused by, very little has changed since 2009. Among those who believe that climate change is a reality to some extent, just under 1 in 5 say it’s exclusively man-made (-3 points on ‘09); 1 in 10 say exclusively natural changes (+2 points on ‘09); and 7 in 10 say a combination of the two (unchanged since ‘09).

This is reinforced by a question that asks about the extent to which individuals can have a role in reducing the impact of climate change/global warming. Only 7% of the total sample say individuals can’t have any impact at all (i.e. less than the 9% who said they don’t believe in climate change!). This is a new question so can’t be tracked, but it suggests that the public still believe that climate change is happening and can be stopped.

Finally, the new poll also shows that, among those who are most concerned, there has been no fall in perceptions of the importance of climate change. Both last year and this year, 17% said that “global warming/climate change” was among the three biggest issues facing them/their family today*.

The Guardian wrote this up as: “Climate change also dropped significantly down the list of voters’ biggest concerns, ranking in the top three for only 17% of voters, nearly half the number in December 2007 soon after the IPCC’s major assessment and another influential report on the the economics of climate change by Lord Stern for the UK government”.

This may be strictly accurate in terms of the data, but it is misleading when the rest of that article mentions only shifts from the 2009 poll, not the 2007 poll. Incidentally, the Stern review was published in October 2006, 14 months before Mori’s 2007 poll. The late 2007 numbers may have been more influenced by the flooding of that Autumn.

There is much more to look at in the data, and I’ll be coming back to it in future articles. But the first lesson we can take from it is that public opinion around climate change moved in the last year – but not very far.

*I think this question wording discourages people from selecting climate change, as its impact would be felt far more in the future than it is today.

  1. Guy says:

    Nice one Leo! Really interesting – look forward to more analysis of this set of polling data.

    I’ve been going back through various pollsters’ sites looking for older polls on belief in climate, share them with you soon.


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  6. fun poll question…

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