Polls reveal surge in concern in UK about climate change

Written by

Tim Greenhalgh

Posted on

May 15, 2019

Concerns over climate change have reached new levels in the UK as a series of opinion polls reflect the widespread renewed interest in the planet’s sustainability.

These new spikes in fears around global warming are driven in part by climate change protests led by Extinction Rebellion groups, youth activist Greta Thunberg and school strikers, and informed by Sir David Attenborough’s BBC documentary on climate change.

A range of polls over the past month asking the British public a raft of questions on the environment and sustainability underline both the support for radical policy changes together with a mixed response on individual actions to change behaviour.

Significantly, these reinforce data gathered by the Department of Business, Education and Skills in March and published last week (May 9) indicating that 80% of the public said they were either fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) about climate change. Over two-third (69%) said that climate change was already having an impact on the UK.

The government report says:

“The overall proportion concerned about climate change in March was the highest since the survey started in 2012, driven by an increase in the proportion that was very concerned and continuing a trend of increasing concern over recent years.”

Opinium research conducted during the protests showed that 63% agreed that there was a climate emergency, with 25% strongly agreeing. Those aged under 35 were also more likely to agree: 69% compared with 59% of those over 55.

And Sky Data polling during the protests found that 60% approve of Extinction Rebellion’s 2025 “net zero emissions” target.

Human extinction

At the same time, research by ComRes revealed that 54% of the UK public polled agreed that climate change threatens human extinction, with only 25% disagreeing. Interestingly, a more cautiously worded question that climate change did not threaten extinction but needs to be tackled only attracted the support of 39% with 47% disagreeing.

A survey by BMG Research published this week in The Independent found that 59% of voters support  radical cutting of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 at a cost of tens of billions of pounds. Only 8% opposed this while 34 per cent had no view.

This seems to back up shifts in attitude documented by YouGov and Ipsos MORI. The pollsters regularly check which issues people feel are the most important and until recently the environment has tended to be quite low on the list, with less than 10% typically ranking it among their top three concerns.

Comparing the last three YouGov polls of 2017 with three polls before mid-April, there was a jump of 8% in environmental concern, from 9% to 17%. Ipsos MORI also recently saw the highest concern about the environment in over a decade. And by the poll conducted on April 29-30, 24% put the environment among the top issues facing the country, about the same level as the economy and immigration.

Personal sacrifices

Meeting the radical climate goals demands unprecedented behaviour change so it is significant that the Opinium poll shows 66% say they “would be willing to make personal sacrifices for the climate as long as I knew others were doing the same.”

And 77% support the government investing more heavily in renewables, while 57% back moves to “stop giving aviation tax breaks”.

The Omnium poll also revealed clear majorities for clean incentives and subsidies for home insulation, electric cars and public transport.

Perhaps confusingly, a second Sky Data poll showed that fewer people were inclined to act directly, with just 28% saying that they would significantly reduce or give up their use of car or plane, although the ComRes poll indicated that just over half of those questioned (51%) would “forego at least one overseas trip per year for the sake of the climate”.

Eating habits

Several polls presented a mixed picture when people consider changing eating habits to help the environment. The Opinium poll found that 75% of people might or would definitely eat less meat, or were already doing so. Also, 33% supported a meat tax, with 39% opposing this.

That is actually nearly twice the proportion that responded positively to Sky Data’s question on the topic of giving up or eating much less meat (40%). This might reflect an understandable preference for less radical action.

Onshore wind support

And while UK energy produced by wind continues to break records, the Public Attitudes Tracker also shows record levels of support for solar and wind production. The BEIS poll shows that 79% of people support onshore wind, beating the previous record of 76%, set in April 2018. The poll also shows that a new high of 80% of the public are concerned about climate change.

Support for offshore wind is also at a record high of 83%, equalling the record set last April.

Public support for renewables remains consistently very high at 84% and just 3% are against while support for wave and tidal power also reached a new record high of 82% (up from 81% set last April).

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