By Professor Stephen Drinkwater
Climate change has become one of the most pressing issues facing policy-makers across the globe. Concerns about global warming and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events also apply in countries that have not thus far been, or are expected to be, directly affected by the most severe effects of climate change. This is because, in addition to the need for an international approach to combatting climate change, there has been and will continue to be an increase in refugees escaping from areas experiencing adverse weather conditions. So, it is important to find out how people feel about climate change. In this blog I aim to do this by examining responses from the British Social Attitudes survey.
The responses give a fascinating snapshot of how knowledge about climate change has spread in recent years: in 2011 6.7% of respondents did not believe climate change was taking place but this had fallen to only 3.7% by 2019. The proportion of respondents who believe that climate change is taking place but is not man-made also fell over the course of these eight years, from 15.6% to 9.8%. There has also been a decrease in the small percentage of individuals who did not know or refused to answer this question. As a result, the percentage of respondents who thought that climate change is taking place and is man-made increased by over 9 percentage points between 2011 and 2019 from just over 76% to almost 86%.
Attitudes to climate change differ according to people’s characteristics like gender, age and educational level. Men are less likely than women to believe that climate change is man-made and more likely not to believe that climate change is taking place. So far as age is concerned, around 9% of people aged 70 or over don’t believe that climate change is taking place and 18% that climate change is taking place but is not man-made. In contrast, such views are least prevalent amongst the 30-39 age group at 4% and 11%, respectively. The percentage of individuals giving a ‘don’t know’ response or who refused to answer the question was also highest amongst the oldest age group.
Perhaps most interestingly, attitudes towards climate change are strongly influenced by economic position, as shown in Table 1. Students are most likely to believe that climate change is taking place and is man-made, followed by the employed. In contrast, retired, permanently sick and unemployed individuals are least likely to indicate such a view. These groups, as well as people looking after the home, also had the highest percentage in the ‘don’t know’ or refusal category. This is most noticeable for the permanently sick since 3.3% of this group either gave a don’t know response or refused to answer the question.
The second table reveals some very large variations by educational qualifications. In particular, graduates are least likely to report that climate change is not taking place, with less than 2% of graduates in this category. This view is slightly less prevalent amongst graduates with a post-graduate degree and 92% of this group thought that climate change is taking place and is man-made. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals without any formal qualifications, less than two thirds of whom believe that climate change is taking place and is man-made. Of the remainder of those with no qualifications, 11% did not believe that climate change was taking place, 20% that it is but is not man made and 4% did not know or refused to answer. The percentage in the latter category was by far the highest for those without any qualifications in comparison to other educational groups.
Data from the British Social Attitudes Survey provides a fascinating insight into how attitudes towards climate change have evolved amongst representative samples of the British population over the past decade. We can see that climate change scepticism is declining, although more rapidly amongst those with higher levels of education. There are smaller differences by age, although a relatively high percentage (9%) of the over 70s did not believe that climate change was taking place. A higher percentage of men can also be found in this category, with women more likely to believe that climate change is taking place and is man-made.