Is public support for climate change mitigation in danger of melting away?

By Stephen Fisher This week’s UN climate action summit was heralded by record breaking protests last week. Demand for action on the climate emergency has been building over the year. Extinction Rebellion protests in April received substantial support despite the disruption they caused. Over the summer various opinion polls found that the environment was one of the top three issues facing Britain, and surveys indicated record levels of worry about climate change and willingness to take action from most of the population. But how deep does climate concern really go? In mid-June, shortly after the government pledged to reduce the production of greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050, but before it became law, Deltapoll asked a representative sample of 2016 people in Britain whether they approved of the idea. Specifically, the poll explained and asked the following. Reducing UK greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero involves heavily cutting the use of fossil fuels and finding ways of taking any remaining greenhouse-gas emissions out of the atmosphere. Do you approve or disapprove of changing the law to require the government to reduce UK greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050? Just 8% disapproved, but 22% were equivocal and 10% didn’t know what they thought. Only 60% actually approved of the then proposed new law. True this is a clear majority, but not a massive one. One reason the proposal did not command a bigger majority is the size of the group that do not believe that climate change is the result of greenhouse-gas emissions. When asked their views on climate change, 24% thought that, “the planet is getting warmer but this is mostly due to natural forces rather than the actions of humans,” 5% thought that the planet was not getting warmer, while 9% said they did not know. The percentage who believed that “climate change is happening and this is mostly due to actions of humans,” was, at 61%, little more than the 60% who approved of the net-zero 2050 legislation. Despite the similarity in the two numbers, the three-fifths who approve of net-zero 2050 are not the same three-fifths who agree with scientists that climate change is mostly anthropogenic. The bullet points below show how beliefs about climate change and net-zero approval overlap somewhat but not completely. Just less than half of the adult population both believe climate change is mainly human and also approve of the net-zero 2050 law.  
  • Approves of net-zero 2050 and believes climate change mostly human: 47%
  • Does not approve of net-zero 2050, but believes climate change mostly human: 14%
  • Approves of net-zero 2050, but does not believe climate change mostly human: 13%
  • Neither approves of net-zero 2050 nor believes climate change mostly human: 26%
  Some 13% approve of the net-zero law, but are not convinced that climate change is happening and mainly caused by humans. The views of a further 14% are the other way round: they believe climate change in primarily anthropogenic, but they do not approve of the net-zero law. Put another way, nearly a quarter, 23%, of those who do believe that climate change is driven by humans do not approve of legislating for a 2050 net-zero requirement. Also a third of those who do not believe in primarily anthropogenic climate change still approve of the net-zero 2050 law. It is easy to think up reasons why some of those who appreciate climate science might nevertheless decline approval for net-zero 2050: too much, too little, not the right approach, etc. The survey did not ask about reasons for support or opposition. However, amongst those who think climate change is mostly human, approval for net-zero 2050 increases with education, turnout and self-reported willingness to vote (an indicator of political engagement). These patterns suggest that more familiarity and deliberation on the issue likely leads to more support for net-zero 2050, not less. Why someone who does not believe in climate science would support the net-zero law is much more puzzling. The purpose of the regulation is to reduce climate change by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. That aim would be pointless if climate change is not happening, or if it is not caused by humans. Of those who approve of the new law but reject the climate science consensus, most, 74%, still believe that climate change is happening. Instead of accepting that it is primarily anthropogenic they believe that climate change is mostly due to natural forces. Fully 39% of the “mostly natural forces” group approve of the net-zero 2050 law. There is no logical contradiction here. But it is surprising that such people would approve of such a major commitment with the expectation of little efficacy if climate change is not mostly caused by humans. Even more remarkable are the 19% of those undecided about climate change and the 29% of those who think the planet is not getting warmer who nonetheless approve of legislating for net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. It really is hard to rationalise such revolutionary action if there is no climate change to mitigate. The question we asked did not explain that the purpose of the law was climate change mitigation. So perhaps people had other reasons for wanting to eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions. Even if you’re not sure what they are, they don’t sound nice. Just as previous research has shown that people can express support for non-existent parliamentary bills just from the title, some respondents might well have approved greenhouse-gas reduction just because they like the idea. If that, or some still more spurious reason, explains why a third of people without a firm belief in climate science nonetheless support net-zero 2050, it raises the questions about those who do believe climate change is mostly human. How many of them also approve of net-zero 2050 for tenuous reasons rather than the clear-headed ones we might presume? Given that 21% of those who approve of the net-zero law do not believe climate change is mainly human, how many of those who approve and also believe actually approve of the law because of their belief in climate science? Probably most, maybe a large majority, but there is likely to be a substantial minority who give the climate conscious answer to both questions without knowing or thinking much about the link between the two. So the proportion of people who approve of the legal requirement for net-zero 2050 because of their belief in basic climate science is likely to be well below the 47% who both approve of the law and believe in the science. Policy measures needed to reach net-zero by 2050 would have major effects on most people’s lifestyles and livelihoods. Politicians are most likely to be able to pursue those policies if the vast majority of the public supports the aims of net-zero and that support is based on a clear understanding of anthropogenic climate change. Without that foundation public support could easily collapse if the costs become, or even just start to look, too much to bear. Even though public support for climate change mitigation has been growing, it is still thin, and in danger of melting away under pressure.    
Professor Stephen FisherAuthor: Professor Stephen Fisher