Why governments are storing up trouble on climate change

HSBC have recently released the third wave of their Climate Confidence Monitor, part of their sustainability programme. The research is an annual tracker of attitudes towards climate change in 12 countries, covering a spread of developed and emerging states.

While the research isn’t particularly ambitious, it pulls out some interesting findings about the role of the individual and of government in tackling climate change. And it suggests that there may be something worrying building in the way people are seeing climate change and the responsibility for dealing with it.

According to the reports, the level of concern about climate change in a country is negatively correlated with that country’s wealth. So the richer a country is, the less concerned its people are about climate change. Britain has the joint-lowest level of concern among the countries tested (that’s in ’08; ’09 data aren’t broken-down by country in the existing report).

I have a couple of issues with the data here. Firstly, the ‘concern’ question measures level of agreement with the statement “Climate change and how we respond to it are among the biggest issues I worry about today”. It would be reasonable for someone to interpret that as meaning “Climate change is one of the most globally significant issues I worry about”, rather than “Climate change is one of the issues I worry about the most”, as I imagine it was intended. The translation of questions for non-English-speaking countries could also affect this.

Normally we could get around issues like this by comparing the questions over time (assuming they’re asked with the same wording). But the first wave of fieldwork was conducted in April ’07, right when, as we’ve seen, interest and awareness of climate change was unusually high (at least in the UK) with increased media attention around the Stern and IPCC reports. Between 2008 and 2009, the numbers suggest people have become less concerned, but more likely to take action, presumably because adopting low-carbon behaviours is becoming both easier and either incentivised or compulsory. But to see whether this is a trend, rather than a one-off issue, we would need another datapoint.

Putting this to the side, as with concern about climate change, so with optimism that it will be stopped. Only 8% in developed economies think it will be stopped, and 31% in developed economies say they’re already personally making a significant effort to reduce climate change. This does not look good as the basis for encouraging a greater commitment.

Finally, what I find to be the most interesting – and worrying – bit of the research is the thread running throughout about governments being seen to have the greatest responsibility to tackle climate change. In 2007, 68% said government should play the leading role. This was supported in following waves when people were asked what they expect governments to be doing; the top were signing a global climate deal (65% say is very/extremely important) and ultimately reducing their C02 emissions (78% say their country should reduce emissions by at least as much as other countries).

But this brings us back to people taking more action on climate change while simultaneously becoming less concerned about the issue, and less likely to believe it will be stopped. It seems that people now feel less responsible for dealing with climate change, and increasingly act out of a sense of obligation rather than because they think it’s important. The government is thus seen to be the only body with responsibility for tackling climate change. And it may be becoming expected that the government’s responses should not interfere with the population’s lives. A chart in the 2008 report suggests something as much:

HSBC role of government

Notice how the top two actions that governments are expected to be doing are things that don’t directly affect the population. Encouraging people to change their behaviour is fourth, and governments are already perceived to be doing this more than any other action. It appears that governments may actually be losing the case for involving the population in helping to tackle climate change.

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