Public understanding of climate change: variability and influences

Public awareness of, and concern about climate change is an important ingredient for bringing about policy change. How best then can we characterise public understanding of this topic? Beliefs about climate change have been described as being as complex as the issue itself but it is possible to point to some key patterns and trends.

Back in 2011, international research by the polling company Gallup found that majorities in 85 of the 111 countries they surveyed reported they knew at least something about climate change. Awareness of the topic was highest overall in Europe and across the Americas, though a majority of people were aware of climate change across many parts of Africa and Asia even by the 2000s.

Despite high levels of basic awareness, the levels of concern and beliefs about causes vary a great deal within and between countries, and over time. In Spain, around half of those questioned by the European Social Survey said that they were either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ worried about climate change (about 10% were not). This contrasts sharply with the UK, where only a quarter of people held this level of concern. Across Europe, most people recognise a role for human causation of climate change, though it is perceived by many to be caused in part by human, and in part by natural processes.

Survey studies conducted over a number of years point to a growth in public concern during the 2000s, but that this was followed by a decline into the 2010s. This has been accompanied by growing polarisation, in which the difference in opinion between those on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of politics has become more pronounced. The effect is particularly strong in the USA though a political divide has been observed in other countries too. This indicates that perceptions of climate change have firmly entered the realm of the political and cultural, whereby people’s opinion can be just as strongly informed by wider views about the world as by an appreciation of climate science.

It is harder to pinpoint the causes behind changing public perceptions, but several key studies have drawn conclusions based on information collected over time. Attitudes towards climate change have been linked to temperature anomalies such as spells of warm weather, though it has been argued that this effect might wear off once an event has passed. Direct experience with extreme temperatures and weather events has also been found to affect people’s perceptions, including as to whether climate change is ‘real’ and, beyond that, to affect their personal behaviour intentions with regard to taking action to reduce their own emissions. The role for ‘experience’ of climate change raises important questions for communication.

Fluctuations in opinion have been connected to economic changes. Recessions experienced in many parts of the world during the 2000s contributed to declining public concern in both Europe and USA. This effect has been discussed in terms of the idea of a ‘finite pool of worry‘: people are less likely to be concerned about climate change if they are facing more immediate problems, such as those relating to their employment or finances.

Researchers examining national data have also concluded that media coverage exerts a strong and direct influence on public opinion, finding that “the greater the quantity of media coverage of climate change, the greater the level of public concern”. While media coverage is important, this research and previous work has stressed that media attention is itself determined by the level of attention paid to the topic by politicians and legislatures. Although advocacy movements are also found to be important in shaping public concern, this research nevertheless reaches the rather sobering conclusion that the availability and publishing of climate science has little to no effect.

The research on public perceptions of climate change shows that multiple factors have been influential, at different times and in different parts of the world. Ultimately, public concern about climate change appears both to influence policy-making, and to be influenced in turn by the actions of decision-makers. This points to the potential for mutually reinforcing processes in society, either in raising awareness and concern, or in diminishing them.

Burning questions

Based on our understanding of previous trends, what are likely to be the future trajectories of public opinion and/or concern about climate change?

Is polarisation of opinion on climate change inevitable? If not, are there communication strategies that can directly challenge it?

What are appropriate and legitimate approaches to influence public opinion and concern about climate change?

By Stuart Capstick

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