Tory MPs vs public opinion on energy and climate change

This was originally posted on Carbon Brief, on 11 September.

A new poll of MPs has found widespread doubts about climate science, particularly among Tory MPs.

The poll, conducted for PR Week by Populus and reported in the Guardian, found that 51% of MPs think that man-made climate change is “an established scientific fact”. Two in five think it is a theory that “has not yet been conclusively proved”, while nearly one in ten say man-made climate change is “environmentalist propaganda”.

The findings suggest that MPs have similar views on climate science to those of the general public. A poll in August 2013 by Opinium for Carbon Brief, with similar questions, found that 56% believe that climate change is happening and is caused by humans.

In fairness, the concept of "scientific fact" is a little shonk.

Polling 2b

But the new poll shows dramatic contrasts in attitudes of MPs of different parties. While 73% of Labour MPs think man-made climate change is a scientific fact, only three in ten Tory MPs say the same. Nearly one in five Tory MPs say they think it is purely propaganda.

Although Brass Eye did establish that some scientific facts do exist.The sample of Liberal Democrats is too small for meaningful analysis. While the sample of the other main parties is larger, it still gives a margin of error of around +/- 12pts for Tory MPs and +/- 13pts for Labour MPs. Nevertheless, the gap in the results is large enough to suggest that Tory MPs have views about climate science that are, on average, very different from those of the general public.

Mounting evidence

Such a level of doubt about climate science among Tories might appear surprising. When the Climate Change Act was passed in October 2008, only three Tory MPs voted against it.

But this is not the first polling evidence of such views among Tory MPs about energy and climate change. A separate poll of MPs, conducted in July 2014 by ComRes, found similar differences in opinions about renewable energy.

According to that poll, just 16% of Tory MPs support the use of onshore wind power. In contrast, more than three quarters of Labour MPs said they supported onshore wind, while a parallel poll conducted at the same time found that two thirds of the public agreed.

The same applies with local onshore wind developments. The ComRes polls found that 12% of Tory MPs would support such developments, compared with nearly three in four Labour MPs, and over three in five members of the public.

Tough and unpopular decisions

Before the 2010 General Election, a survey of Tory candidates in the party’s most winnable seats found that reducing Britain’s carbon footprint was their lowest priority out of 19 tested. Just eight of the 141 candidates listed it among their top five priorities.

Do the results stack up?

So can we conclude Tory MPs are unusually relaxed about climate change? There are some reasons to be cautious about the findings of the recent polling – but none are enough to discount the results.

At an average of 54 years old, MPs are substantially older than the average person. Older people are less likely to be concerned about climate change, so part of the difference might be explained by the age gap. Yet, even if Tory MPs are on average older than other MPs, they are still substantially more doubtful about climate change than even the oldest groups of the public.

Equally, Tory MPs are more likely to represent rural constituencies, which perhaps feeds their opposition to wind farms. Yet just being rural is not enough to explain their opposition to onshore wind: a member of the public living in a rural area is more than four times as likely to support local wind farms than a Tory MP is to do the same, according to the ComRes polls.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in the data may be how MPs are selected to complete the polls. Both polls are conducted from the agencies’ panels of MPs, with the results weighted to be representative of the party balance of the Commons. But there is no guarantee that the selection of MPs provides the basis for a representative sample.

In fact, it seems likely that the MPs who complete such polls are ones with relatively more time to spare, which probably means those not in government. A Populus spokesperson said they “receive responses from some members of the government”, but that the proportion from the government “won’t be huge”. It has been suggested that as many as half of Tory MPs now hold government positions.

It may be then, that these polls are better understood as being of backbenchers, rather than as being representative of the parties overall.

Even if this is the case, the results suggest that Tory MPs – backbenchers or otherwise – have views about climate change and renewable energy that are very different from the average views of other politicians and members of the public.

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