UK public’s climate concern at all time high according to major new study on risk and adaptation

UK public’s climate concern at all time high according to major new study on risk and adaptation

By Will Bugler

New research has pointed to a large shift in the British public’s attitude to risks of climate change. The study, which was conducted during the height of the Brexit debate, found that climate change was second only to the UK’s departure from the EU as an issue of concern for the UK public.

The study, launched earlier this week at the Royal Society in London, is one of the first major studies into public attitudes towards climate risk and adaptation. The survey, carried out by a team of researchers from Cardiff University and Climate Outreach, showed significant concern around climate impacts such as storms, flooding and, in particular, heatwaves, and suggested strong support for policies to address these.

Acclimatise’s Will Bugler sat on the advisory panel for the study, which found that many more Britons believe climate change is “the most important issues facing the country in the next 20 years” than three years ago. 23% of respondents named climate change as the most important issue, up from just 2% in 2016.


Image: Almost a quarter of respondents list climate change as “the most important issues facing the country in the next 20 years”

“This is a remarkable shift in British public opinion – the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years,” said Professor Nick Pidgeon, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, who led the project.

“With climate policy entering a critical phase, as the UK prepares to host the UN climate summit – and as many areas seek to recover from winter flooding – these survey results provide strong evidence of a shift in perceptions among the British public towards greater concern for climate risks and their impacts.

Climate concern on the rise and scepticism fades

While climate scepticism is still prominent in the UK’s print media, and online, the study, based on 1,401 nationally-representative respondents, found that climate change scepticism was low amongst the British public. About two thirds (64%) felt Britain was already feeling the effects of climate change (as compared to 41% in 2010) and that climate concern has doubled since 2016, with 40% saying they were now “very or extremely worried”.

Storms and flooding remain the highest perceived risks, and people felt that they were likely to increase in the future. The study also found that there was a surprisingly big surge in concern for overheat risks – 72% thought heatwaves were now a serious problem for the UK (compared to 23% in 2013). Other knock on effects due to extreme weather such as effects on food supplies and health impacts were also of very high concern for most respondents.

Strong support for climate action

Importantly, the public concern for climate impacts was matched by a desire for action. There was very strong support for a range of adaptation policies, for example spending on flood defences or tighter building regulations. Three quarters of those asked supported using public money now to prepare the UK, and protecting health, vulnerable groups and the emergency services from climate impacts were top priorities. Interestingly there was less concern about protecting economic growth economic growth through adaptation policy.

“The current sharp rise in risk awareness is a real departure from that trend,” said Professor Pidgeon, “and this is probably due to prominent recent severe weather events, widespread climate protests and greater media coverage.” Overall people felt that adaptation and resilience building was the responsibility of government, however only a relatively small number of people said that they were likely to write to their MP about the issue. This perhaps indicates a lack of public trust in MPs to affect decision making on climate change adaptation.

Implications for climate adaptation communications

Accompanying the perceptions report Climate Outreach developed guidelines to support improved public engagement on climate risk issues. This has seven key recommendations:

  1. Climate change concern is at an all-time high, and adaptation policies are supported across the political spectrum – these are important starting points for public engagement
  2. Climate impacts are increasingly salient, with a surge in concern around extreme heat – this opens up a new front for engaging the public
  3. Climate change is getting ‘closer to home’ – show how climate risks are relevant to people’s lives by relating them to widely-shared values, and build efficacy by making the link to constructive solutions
  4. Framing messages – concerns about mitigation and adaptation reinforce each other and are perceived as two sides of the same coin
  5. Health risks, wellbeing and adaptation – make the connection and frame messages in this way, but don’t assume much existing knowledge
  6. Climate conversations need to go beyond discussions of emissions targets – a ‘just transition’ applies to adaptation as well
  7. From concern to commitment – deepening public engagement on climate change is the challenge ahead

The research was conducted as part of the UK Climate Resilience Programme, an £18.7m inter-multidisciplinary collaboration, funded by UK Research and Innovation and led by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Met Office as part of the Strategic Priorities Fund.

Dr Kate Lonsdale, co-champion of the UK Climate Resilience Programme, said: “The scientific consensus is increasingly clear that climate risks are increasing in likelihood and severity. “Now we have evidence that people in Britain see these risks are relevant to their lives today rather than something that will happen in the future and in other places.”

Download a copy of the perceptions study here.

Download a copy of the accompanying guidelines for public communications here.


Cover photo take by the author.

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