Worries about climate change are at record levels. Is this a new chapter in public opinion?

Public opinion is rarely tidy but sometimes there are clear trends in the popular mood. A new poll suggests there has been a shift in public opinion about climate change, with a surge in worries about the threat.

Since polls began asking about climate change, worries about the issue in rich English-speaking countries (the places where denial has been prominent) have gone through the following broad stages:

Up to 2007: public discovery of the problem and increasing worries (with a peak around 2000, a fall after 9/11 and a recovery until around 2007)

2008-2010: rapid decline in worries, accelerated by Copenhagen and the 2009 email hack

2011-2016: slow increase in worries, back to around 2009 levels

The new poll – of the US public, by Gallup – suggests we may be in a new stage. Concern about climate change appears to have past 2009 levels and to now exceed all previous peaks.

2017-onwards: concern increasing to record levels (?)

Is that a justifiable conclusion?

A problem is that this is just one poll. It’s the only one I’m aware of that shows concern to now be greater than it’s ever previously been. It might be a rogue result, outside the margin of error.

But… It’s 8-points up on the previous year’s poll, and 4 above any previous. This poll would have to have been a real statistical fluke for the true level of public concern not be the highest since at least 2009.

And a different poll, from the UK, suggests something similar.

Various people have asked the “is climate change real” question (FWIW, I don’t like the question – it’s confused by political identity and doesn’t reflect what people actually want done about emissions – but these results are so striking I can’t ignore it). Since 2009 responses to this question were uncannily static. But in February this year ECIU’s poll showed a sudden jump.

So that’s more evidence that we’ve started a new chapter.

Yet I’m still not sure it’s definitive that worries are at record levels. We can probably say concern about climate change is greater than it’s been any time since 2010 – in the US at least – but there’s not enough evidence to be sure it’s at the highest level ever.

One issue is Gallup’s chart shows only the percentage that worry a great deal about climate change. In the equivalent chart last year they combined it with those that worry a fair amount. If we do the same for this year’s data, we find worries this year are no higher than they were in 2008 and are still lower than they were in 1999-2000.

So if we’re still, if not on the fence, at least within touching distance of it, what more evidence might persuade us that worries really are smashing records?

In the UK, the government’s quarterly climate and energy poll asks a question once a year on concern about climate change. The question uses the same wording that MORI has run since 2005, giving a nice comparison that will allow us to test the theory. The next wave, due to be published in late April, should ask that question, so we’ll have more evidence soon about whether concern is rising.

And in Australia, the Lowy Institute has run the same climate question since 2006 in its annual poll. The next wave should be out in June.

In both that and the UK poll, concern in 2016 was still some way below the pre-2010 peak, although the highest for a few years. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s data shows worries are up but not yet at record levels.

Putting it together, the evidence is clear that worries about climate change have been rising for several years. Last year concern was around where it was in the late 2000s. This year, either worries have stopped increasing or they’re moving towards record levels. It may be too early to say for sure but the initial evidence suggests concern is still rising.

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