Leaders in step on climate
Last week's survey of UK attitudes towards climate change has been making a bit of news in the blogosphere - and why not, with a UN conference less than three months away that could commit countries including the UK to spending billions of dollars on the issue?
The headline numbers suggest (as my colleague Sudeep Chand wrote): "The British public has become more sceptical about climate change over the last five years."
Jack_Hughes_NZ wasn't the only person to suggest on this blog that political leaders are now the ones out of touch as they aim for a new UN climate deal.
"(Quoting Sudeep's article:) 'The survey, by Cardiff University, shows there is still some way to go before the public's perception matches that of their elected leaders'.
"Let's get this the right way round, please.
"There is some way to go before the leaders' perception matches that of the public."
As always with opinion polls, it's worth digging down into the small print.
Firstly, the proportion of what researcher Lorraine Whitmarsh describes as "hardened sceptics" has not changed between the two study years (2003 and 2008), remaining roughly constant at 20%.
What has grown (from 15% to 29%) is the proportion agreeing that "claims that human activities are changing the climate are exaggerated".
In fact, that's the only number that did change.
"There is too much conflicting evidence on climate change to know whether it's actually happening" - 35% in 2003, 33% in 2008.
"Climate change is just a natural fluctuation in Earth's temperature" - 21% in 2003, 23% in 2008.
"I am uncertain about whether climate change is really happening" - 20% in 2003, 20% in 2008.
And both of the numbers on the "climate exaggeration" issue are dwarfed by the proportion of the population (half in both years) agreeing with the statement on media exaggeration in general: "The media is often too alarmist about issues like climate change".
So one reasonable conclusion might be that half of the UK public thinks the media is too often sensationalist, and that what has increased is the proportion of the population feeling that climate change has become one of the issues that the media routinely sensationalises.
Among the emails that arrive in my inbox regularly on climate change, one sentiment expressed regularly is that the language of climate catastrophism is getting shriller and shriller as the arguments for the phenomenon collapse.
It's one that I disagree with.
I think the language of catastrophism, chaos, doom - whatever you like to call it - has actually sobered up, in the UK at least, having peaked about three or four years ago when newspapers such as The Independent ran dramatic front pages on a regular basis, a new umbrella body for activists called Stop Climate Chaos came into existence, Roland Emmerich had the Atlantic Ocean freezing in an instant in The Day After tomorrow, and a leading thinktank lambasted a portion of the British press for indulging in "climate porn".
Some long-time observers warned at the time that this would "turn people off"; the Cardiff study suggests they may have been right.
In comments on this blog and others, a different thesis is regularly proposed.
The precise words vary - the wheels are falling off the climate bandwagon, people are seeing the world's getting colder not warmer, climate change is being exposed as the tax-raising scam it really is - but the basic argument is that man-made climate change isn't happening and people are realising it.
However, as I think I've shown above, the Cardiff study shows that the majority of the UK public did not agree with this analysis in 2003 and does not agree with it now.
The survey threw up a fascinating little social vignette by correlating people's attitudes on this issue with other facts about themselves.
So people who are older, more politically conservative or higher-earning are on average more "climate sceptical" than those who are younger, more left-wing or in greater penury.
On a recent thread, Jack_Hughes_NZ (nothing personal, Jack, you just keep saying interesting things) referred to this in a comment about how psychologists identify various personality types, including the "urban-eco" - the suggestion being that peoples' attitudes towards climate change stem from their core psychology.
(A couple of years ago, social anthropologist Benny Peiser and sociologist Kari Norgaard reflected on the psychology of catastrophism and what I'll call "climate ostrich-ism" for this website, which might be worth re-visiting in the current context.)
If this is right, you wouldn't logically expect climate attitudes to change much in a society where information about the issue is everywhere and has been everywhere for a long time, as in the UK - unless there are changes to the underlying facts and people take them on board, or unless somehow the social mix alters over time.
In general, the UK public is more "climate sceptical" than the rest of Europe. Several polls have shown still greater concern over climate change in the developing world, and - interestingly - a greater willingness to make lifestyle changes to deal with it.
A poll commissioned by BBC World Service two years ago showed 90% support globally for climate curbs.
The last few months have seen a number of reports hinting that the pace of global temperature rise may have abated, for now at least, meaning that the picture of inexorably rising temperatures depicted in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, would turn out to be incorrect in the short-term before the overall warming trend kicked back in in future decades.
I wondered if this was being reflected in the intensive negotiations leading up to Copenhagen's UN summit. After all, if governments were sensing a reason not to pledge difficult and potentially expensive transformations to their economies, you would expect them to take it.
Last week I had the chance to ask someone intimately involved in those negotiations. "No" was the answer - not reflected at all - in fact, what was being reflected were fears that the picture would be worse than the IPCC painted.
None of this categorically proves the case for man-made climate change. But it does show, I think, that the publics' and their leaders' perceptions of climate change, in the UK and elsewhere, are not significantly out of step.