Monday, 28 June 2010

Climate change: the merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam

First published on

Last week saw the release of three university-led nationally representative surveys on public attitudes towards climate change – two in the US (1, 2) and one in the UK. In line with previous surveys from the last few years, the UK poll shows four consistent findings:
  • A large majority of people think the climate is changing (78%)
  • A large majority of people are concerned about this (71%)
  • A large majority support the use of tax revenue to fund low-carbon policies such as investment in renewables (68%)
  • A large majority of people say they are willing to reduce the amount of energy they use in order to tackle climate change (65%)
If this doesn’t sound like the findings you saw reported, or your impression of public attitudes towards climate change, then go and look up the results which are publicly available. The picture in the US is slightly different, but not drastically so, with large majorities agreeing that climate change is happening and expressing support for developing low-carbon energy infrastructure.

But what about belief in whether humans are causing climate change? Isn’t that the crucial measure of scepticism?

Intriguingly, given that the public are frequently portrayed as teetering on the brink of abandoning climate change altogether, one of the US polls recorded an increase in the number of people who believe that human activity is changing the climate (the other had no previous survey to compare with, but found that 75% acknowledged human influence on the climate).

True, the number of people who agree that climate change is largely the result of human activity is significantly lower (in the UK and the US) than it was three years ago. But given the four consistent findings outlined above, the big question has to be ‘so what’?

Consider the BBC poll conducted in February, routinely cited as the most damaging of the public opinion polls in the UK. The statistic that was widely reported and repeated was that only 26% of the public agreed that:
“Climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made”
Seems pretty damning doesn’t it? But a further 38% agreed that:
“Climate change is happening, but not yet proven to be largely man-made”
Even in the BBC poll, at the height of everything-gate, a healthy majority accepted that the climate was changing. In the very same poll, only 11% reported being any less concerned about the risks of climate change. The BBC results are completely consistent with the fact that a majority of people are concerned about climate change – anthropogenic or not – and want something done about it.

That significant numbers of people feel confused about whether human influence is responsible for climate change is unsurprising – a great deal of effort has been expended in trying to confuse them. The parallels between the strategies of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and the tactics of ideologically driven climate sceptics today are now well documented. The tobacco companies knew that if they could create enough uncertainty around the link between smoking and lung cancer, then people would continue to consume their product. But as opinion poll after opinion poll comes in, it is starting to look like the link between belief in human-caused climate change and support for low carbon policies is nowhere near as direct.

There is no escaping the fact that there is a major disparity between the level of certainty expressed by climate scientists and by the general public about the basic facts of climate change. It seems counter-intuitive that people dispute anthropogenic climate change, but are willing to modify their behaviour to prevent it. It seems bizarre that 73% of the BBC poll respondents who had heard about ‘climategate’ and IPCC glaciers error claimed that their views about climate change had not been altered. But this is what the polls are telling us.
The merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam – for all the uncertainty they can generate about human impact on the climate, public support for mitigating climate change remains high.


Pickles’ ‘big society’ recycling scheme is a nudge in the wrong direction

First published on

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free, the Communities Minister Eric Pickles has made some bold claims about ‘human nature’ in introducing the coalition’s household recycling policy. Under the new policy, householders will be rewarded for recycling with points that can be cashed in at ‘local businesses’ such as Marks and Spencer and Cineworld. Bravely summarising decades of behavioural research in just two sentences, Pickles states that:
“There are some basic truths about human nature that the previous government found hard to grasp. If you want people to do something, then it’s always much more effective to give them support and encouragement – a nudge in the right direction – than to tell them what to do and then punish them if they don’t obey.”
He later goes on to claim:
“What’s really important about this scheme is that it treats people like adults. There’s no compulsion to participate, no penalties for opting out. It works because there’s a clear incentive to get involved. You put something in, you get something back. This is the Big Society in action.”
Unfortunately, the one basic truth about human nature that Pickles overlooks is the one that seems most essential for the Big Society: people respond to what others around them are doing, and don’t just behave in a rational, individually beneficial way. If they did, far less people would play the lottery.
Much more important than any individual-level cost/benefit analysis of whether to recycle is whether a particular behaviour is seen as socially acceptable. In several psychological studies, the power of social norms has been demonstrated for environmental behaviours like recycling and home energy management. In a famous example, American researchers showed that energy-hungry households reduced their energy consumption when they had access to information about the average usage in their area. They saw their high-energy use as socially undesirable, and fell into line.
Nobody wants to be seen as the gas guzzler in a neighbourhood full of waste-watchers, so reward or punishment schemes may be missing the point if they are aimed at individuals rather than tapping into the huge potential of social comparisons to generate behaviour change. People are more likely to compete to out-do each other than they are for a few pounds off their supermarket bill, and another recent psychological study showed how important people think it is to be ‘seen to be green’. Shoppers were willing to pay a premium for products with an environmental advantage – although only if they thought that other people were watching.
But there are also deeper reasons for not creating a direct link between recycling rates and financial rewards. Studies by Tim Kasser have shown that people who are highly materialistic are the least likely to act in a pro-environmental way. Paying people to recycle promotes the very value (material gain) that is likely to inhibit more ambitious changes in behaviour, or support for policies that may in fact cost people money in low-carbon taxes.
In short, Pickles’ Big Society recycling plan has no societal component, promotes the environmentally and socially antagonistic value of individual material gain as a reason for recycling, and amounts to paying people to put out their rubbish. Is that the best the Big Society can do?