Why opinion on climate change is the most significant environmental issue of our age
I wrote an article the other week about scientific illiteracy in Doctor Who, and got a set of conflicting responses. One group of people said ‘yes, science is important’. The other group said ‘it’s a children’s TV series — it doesn’t matter’. There were scientists and non-scientists on either side.
There’s a certain amount (among my scientific friends) of ‘how can people be so stupid?’ versus ‘it doesn’t matter what non-scientists think about science’ frustration. The chemists, biologists, physicists and ecologists I talk to most often struggle to understand how people can benefit from a modern education and yet feel that science is a matter of opinion, balanced with the shrugging notion that it doesn’t matter what non-scientists think, because they aren’t going to be doing any science anyway.
But it does matter, and the crunch comes on climate change.
Carbonbrief.org has done a useful study on the way opinion on climate change varies with time.
It’s a UK study, so if you’re reading this internationally you may need to look at results from where you are. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has consistently found that it’s 30-40% who believe that the current overall warming climate change is caused by human processes. UKERC, the UK Energy Research Centre, has been finding it in the 20%-30% zone. IPSOS Mori, in a 2014 poll, had the figure around 60%. The changing answers depend a lot on how you ask the question: if you allow a middle ground of ‘both human and natural’ you get what is on the surface of it a much more climate-change-skeptic result.
Politicians are fond of saying that the only poll that counts is the ballot box. However, there is not and never will be a ballot box on climate change. This is where the danger lies, because it is in politicians’ perception of what people think that policy is formed and implemented during the life of a government.
DECC has published a deeper-level study of public opinion on climate and energy issues, available here. While interesting in themselves, the opinion graphs on renewables, shale gas, nuclear and concern for climate change are much more revealing when taken together.
Let me summarise. According to DECC’s findings, most people (59%) are in favour of renewable energy, and would back a development near them. This is an opinion survey result, of course. Experience suggests that most people who actually take an interest will oppose almost anything, whether it be new housing, solar or wind power developments, or changes to the frequency of bin collections. 68% of people say they are fairly concerned or very concerned about climate change. 42% of people favour nuclear energy, as opposed to 27% who oppose it. More people (29%) support the extraction of shale gas, aka fracking, than oppose it (22%), but 48% took a neutral stance. It’s customary to lump the ‘very concerned/supportive/opposed to’ with the ‘fairly concerned/supportive/opposed to’ when creating headline figures for this kind of research, but what really stands out is that most people take a fairly neutral stance on most things. The ‘fairly concerneds’ and the ‘not very concerneds’ on climate change account for about 70% of respondents. Almost half of all respondents neither support nor oppose fracking. A third of people neither support nor oppose nuclear. About two thirds of people either support or neither support nor oppose renewables, as opposed to strongly support.
This might seem a tendentious reading, but it’s important. If you survey any group of people and offer them a choice between something which the questioner appears them to want to say and something which is the opposite, most people, if they know nothing about the subject and have no particular opinion, will either choose to support the questioner’s point of view, or not to commit. This is a well known phenomenon in survey design, and pre-employment surveys specifically include these kind of questions as a way of gauging to what extent the respondent is just trying to please you with the answer. A survey on climate change is likely to gain a positive response about renewables just because it sounds like the right answer: as I mentioned above, experience suggests that people will campaign quite hard to prevent solar farms and wind farms being constructed. For all the other results, the ‘don’t know or not really fussed’ group is the most influential.
In the spring of this year, the energy companies in the UK conducted the most effective lobbying campaign I have ever seen. Facing widespread public opprobrium on energy prices, they responded by saying that it was the green levy which was causing all the trouble. The green levy, of course, was stable, and was not part of the sudden price rises which energy companies had been applying (or been perceived to have applied). The prime minister’s response was to abandon the green levy, leaving this government’s green policies significantly damaged. This was not so much because of the cost to public finances, nor because of the lessening of the impetus to become more energy efficient, but because it revealed that government was willing to abandon long cherished green policies over a short term public outcry.
Politically speaking, the prime minister had read the charts correctly. While the cost of living is the public’s number one current concern, climate change, according to DECC’s figures again, is only number four on the list, with just 8% of people saying they are important. While around 68% were very concerned or fairly concerned about climate change when asked directly, 85% said they were very or fairly concerned about the prospect of steep energy prices in the future.
When political parties formulate their policies on energy, they are not considering climate change on its own. They are considering it in the context of what people will have to give up or put up with in order to take it seriously. Energy prices trump climate change for most people. The majority believe that climate change is cause either by natural processes or a mixture of natural and human processes (despte all the evidence being that the warming caused by human processes is actually offset by natural processes). When pushed, most people would say they are fairly concerned or very concerned about climate change, but a much more significant majority are fairly concerned or not very concerned.
We can take some heart from the fact that climate change skepticism is gradually reducing. However, this masks the fact that there shouldn’t be any skepticism about it at all.
From 1998, there was a pernicious theory put about that MMR vaccines were a cause of autism. It subsequently emerged that the paper published in the Lancet was fraudulent. Nonetheless, vaccination programmes in the UK took years to recover, resulting in a rise in mumps and measles which resulted in deaths and permanent injuries. Much of this was fuelled by the UK media reporting the matter as a controversy of two sides, each of which deserved an equivalent airing.
Science is not a matter of opinion. What we learned from our very first experiments in senior school (or earlier, if we were lucky enough) was that everything must be done as objectively as possible, and written up in such a way as to remove all possibility of opinion. Hypotheses to be tested were to recorded as such, so that there should never be any confusion between the evidence and the hypothesis. Conclusions were to be drawn from the observations. Anything which was inconclusive had to be couched carefully in order to avoid any indication that it had been demonstrated.
The challenge, for those who take climate change seriously, is to shift the majority who are ‘fairly concerned’ or ‘not very concerned’ about climate change to ‘very concerned’, and to get a higher proportion of people concerned about climate change than about energy costs.
In terms of total cost over the life time of the facility, renewables are still among the more expensive ways of generating energy. DECC’s figures for projects commencing in 2018 are given below, taking account of capital costs and decommissioning. Gas remains the cheapest. In terms of cost for the customer using today’s infrastructure, gas comes in at 4.21 pence per kWh, oil at 6.43, LPG at 8.59, coal at 3.92, and electricity at 7.09 for off peak but 13.52 for standard rate. Aside from burning locally sourced wood or wood pellets, which are carbon neutral and potentially cheaper than gas, all renewables currently produce electricity — currently the most expensive way for consumers to heat their homes.
Being serious about climate change means recognising that we are going to have to accept — at least in the short term — higher prices for our energy. At the moment — and Conservatives, Labour and UKIP all know this — the public is not ready to trade cost of living for tackling climate change. The science is unequivocal. Climate change is real, and it isn’t a matter of opinion. More than anything else, the greatest challenge in green issues is to get people to accept that this is, quite literally from a long-term public policy perspective, the most important thing in the world.