What can we learn from the latest claim of climate fatigue?

A new set of international data has just come out from Mori and prompted the Daily Mail to claim that “‘Britons are suffering from ‘global warming fatigue’”.

For loyal Mail readers, this won’t come as much of a surprise. A couple of months ago the Mail reported a poll that found agreement with climate science in the UK to be lower now than it’s been at any point since the polling began in 2006.

But then for those who read other papers, especially the Guardian, there’s been plenty to suggest that agreement with climate science is still high, and desire for action remains strong. If anything, we might have thought that it’s been growing in recent months.

So are the Mail twisting the facts to fit their expectations, or are they onto something?

In his analysis, Neil at Carbon Brief makes several valid criticisms of the Mail’s interpretation.

The poll asked respondents to identify their top three most important environmental issues, out of a list of 15. This is a long list to choose from, yet “global warming/climate change” was fourth in the UK (on 25%), itself ahead of other urgent and tangible issues like flooding and food supply.

A second point Neil makes is that respondents were asked about environmental issues facing their country “today”. So they are prompted to think both locally and also in terms of issues that are already having an impact. Many people might think that climate change will be an immense crisis in the future, but that its impact is so far relatively unimportant.

In this context perhaps it isn’t surprising that, for example, Indians expressed much greater relative concern about climate change (55% in India) than people in the UK did, since India is already experiencing impacts of climate change, with loss of water supply and flooding of low-lying islands in the Sunderbans. (That said, I’m still a bit surprised with how high this is in India. Perhaps the explanation is in the sample frame: the pollsters only seem to have found 16 people with low levels of education in India: 2% of the sample. They had to weight this up to 41% of the sample to fit with national demographics. I wonder how representative those 16 people really were of national attitudes to climate change among people with lower levels of education.)

To Neil’s points, we could add the criticism that a claim of ‘global warming fatigue’ would require a change in attitudes. This poll doesn’t purport to show any change in attitudes.

So there are good reasons to be wary about the Mail’s analysis.

But for all that, we shouldn’t dismiss entirely the conclusions.

This isn’t the first poll we’ve seen to suggest that Brits are less worried about climate change than are people in many other countries.

An international poll by HSBC found last year that only 8% of those in the UK put climate change as their top concern out of a list of eight issues tested. This was lower than in all but one of the 15 countries tested.

Data from GlobeScan earlier this year also showed that concern in the UK about climate change has fallen significantly since ’07: more than it’s fallen in nearly all of the 14 countries tested.

There are imperfections with each of these polls. None follow the structure I’d use if I designed a test to see the relative concern about climate change internationally (which wouldn’t prompt people with a list drawn up by pollsters living in rich countries). But none are meaningless, and together they build a fairly consistent picture.

Last week we saw that people who have had personal experience of flooding are more concerned about climate change, more likely to believe that it can be stopped, and more willing to take action personally.

Similarly, this new poll has lessons for organisations campaigning on climate change in the UK. The top two environmental issues, above climate change, are “future energy sources and supplies” and “dealing with the amount of waste we generate”.

So this is evidence that some people are more interested in the associated benefits we might gain through action to stop climate change than they are in stopping climate change itself.

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