World Agenda

Last updated: 23 december, 2009 - 11:45 GMT

Who says climate change matters?

Silhouettes of people in front of an illuminated model of planet Earth

After the chaos of Copenhagen, and the eleventh-hour click accord, the real hard work begins - of moving from the framing of targets, aspirations and commitments to actually putting the agreement into practice. But how ready are the public for what comes next?

Whatever the shortcomings of the deal struck in Denmark, one thing is clear. If the goal of moving to a low carbon world by 2020 is to be met, our societies are going to need to be transformed, and quickly.

And there’s a strong case for saying that people are indeed ready for major change. First, most accept there is a grave problem that needs to be addressed - concern about the changing climate is high, and rising.

These conclusions are the result of a click poll commissioned by BBC World Service and conducted by GlobeScan.

Chart showing poll results on question of climate change seriousness

Across the 23 countries in which we polled the general public this year, nearly two thirds (64%) on average saw climate change as a ‘very serious’ problem, and in the 13 countries we’ve been able to track consistently since 1998, the proportion rating it as very serious has increased from 44% to 63% over that period.

Desire for action

Second, there is a widespread desire for action to address the issue. More than 60% of the global public feel that we need to take ‘major steps very soon’ to limit carbon emissions.

There was also a consensus in favour of reaching a deal in Copenhagen. Given the choice between an ‘ambitious’ agreement, a ‘moderate and gradual approach’ and ‘no agreement’, only 6% across 23 countries rejected the idea of an agreement.

Third - there is a willingness among the public to contemplate at least some economic pain in order to address the problem.

Chart showing poll result on question of climate change investment

When we asked how people felt about their governments making significant investments to address climate change - in, for example, renewable energy or public transport - even if the effect of this was to harm the economy, 61% said they supported such investments.

But wait a minute. Even if 64% regard climate change as very serious, that means more than a third do not. Given the degree of alarm and the cataclysmic scenarios expressed by most climate scientists, why aren’t we more worried?

Science not well understood

The answer, perhaps, has something to do with the complexity of climate change as an issue. Few people are able to make a clear link between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, even in countries like the UK where the issue is much discussed.

Many still cite increased recycling – an excellent idea, but largely irrelevant to this particular issue – as a good strategy for addressing climate change.

And, when we ask the public to rate the seriousness of different environmental problems, issues like air and water pollution - which can be seen and felt - are still seen as more serious than climate change.

Chart showing poll result on question of climate change strategy

These factors are combined with an academic caution that makes scientists very reluctant to state unequivocally that major catastrophes such as the Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina are ‘climate change events’.

So, the public can hardly be blamed for thinking that the jury is still out. We found that support for an ambitious approach by governments to Copenhagen (44%) was only slightly ahead of backing for a moderate approach (39%).

The Copenhagen accord may be seen as inadequate by many scientists and activists - but it may well reflect the preference of global popular sentiment.

Public opinion is clearly not hostile to action. If climate change is indeed the greatest crisis the world has ever faced, though, political leaders will need to convince people that it also represents as real a threat to them as the fate of their bank or the loss of their job.

And more importantly, they need to articulate better the benefits of a low carbon economy. As the travel agent’s saying goes – sell the beach, not the cost of the flight. The low-carbon beach remains unsold.

click More about the poll

Climate change links

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