Newspapers love to cover surveys that show
belief in climate change has
risen or fallen. But how much can polls really tell us about
what the UK public believes when it comes to climate change? We
surveyed 14 polls to try and understand what’s happening.
Belief in climate change
You might think the most obvious question to ask about climate
change is the very simple one – whether people think it’s happening
or not. But only four of the 14 polls we looked at phrased a
question in this way.
All of them are summarised in the UKERC report. The results,
taken in 2005, 2010, 2012 and 2013, indicate that ‘belief’ in
climate change is high overall, and has remained pretty steady for
the past five years.
79 per cent answered ‘yes’ to the question, “As far as you know,
do you personally think the world’s climate is changing, or not?”
in 2010 and 2012, and 72 per cent in 2013.
But in 2005, 91 per cent said ‘yes’. So compared with 2005,
there appears to have been a fall in the number of people who
answer yes to this question.
Source: UK Energy Research Centre data, graph by Carbon
Brief. The blue dots are data points. The grey line illustrates
years there was no sequential data.
Causes of climate change
What about people’s views on what’s causing climate change? This
approach is more popular. All 14 polls asked people what they think
is causing climate change – whether they think it is mostly due to
human or natural causes, or just isn’t happening at all.
The highest percentage of people saying climate change is mostly
or entirely down to human activity was in August 2009, when 71 per
cent of respondents to the Guardian/ICM poll said climate change is
being caused mainly by human factors.
At that point, climate change awareness is likely to have been
unusually high in the lead-up to international climate talks in
Thereafter, the percentage of people answering questions that
give them a straight choice between human and natural causes ranges
between 43 per cent in the
2012 study for the Sunday Times by YouGov, and 68 per
cent in the
2011 Guardian/ICM poll.
The most recent figure comes from Ipsos
Mori’s Global Trends 2014 survey, which suggests 64 per cent of
the UK citizens think human activity is largely to blame for
We should remember that the 14 surveys all phrased the question
slightly differently, however. So with any really big differences,
it’s quite likely that people were answering different questions
rather than changing their views on climate change
People like the middle ground
So far, we’ve talked only about polls that give people a
straight choice between human and natural causes. Something
interesting happens when people have the option to say climate
change results from a bit of both, however.
Both the DECC poll and the surveys UKERC compiled offered
respondents the opportunity to say climate change is a result of
both human and natural activity.
In those surveys, between 42 and 48 per cent of respondents – an
average of 45 per cent – state that climate change is the result of
a mixture of human and natural factors.
This significantly reduces the number of people who say humans
cause climate change, or those who say climate change is down to
This may not be hugely surprising. Scientists are confidant
humans are causing extra warming that has occurred in the
atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels.
But the climate also experiences natural fluctuations – so
actually it’s right to say human activity and natural factors
combine. More pessimistically, the recent dominance of human
influence may get obscured when media reports give voice to people
contest the majority scientific view.
Adding it up
Interestingly, if you ask people whether they think climate
change is predominantly manmade or natural, the number of people
who say climate change is happening is quite significantly higher
than if they had answered a direct question about it, even when
they’re given the option to say its not happening.
Take the 2010 survey in the UKERC study, for example. In
response to a direct question, 78 per cent of respondents said they
think climate change is happening, as opposed to 15 who say it’s
But in the ‘human caused or natural’ question, 96 per cent of
people implicitly agreed climate change is happening – whether they
thought it was because of human activity or natural cycles. Only
two per cent of people said they thought the climate wasn’t
Why the discrepancy? One answer may lie in the fact that the
issue of human-caused climate change has become increasingly
When studying polls, it’s important
to understand not just what the questions ask, but what other
factors may have influenced how people answer.
He says he suspects “people respond to questions about whether
they ‘believe’ in climate change as if they’re being asked “are you
a tree-hugging leftie who hates business?'”
This narrative has become increasingly prominent in recent
years, which may partly explain why the number of respondents
replying that they believe climate chagne is happening in the UKERC
poll dipped after 2005.
In contrast, question about what people feel causes climate
change may be more neutrally received.
As the 2010 study shows, more people will broadly agree that
climate change is happening if they are allowed to express
skepticism about what’s causing it – what scholars call
There’s also when the study was conducted to think about – and
what the weather was like then.
Take the UKERC polling in our first chart, which asked, “As
far as you know, do you personally think the world’s climate is
changing, or not?”. It asked the same question at different
times, but during very different weather conditions.
pointed out that asking this question during extreme cold
weather may push some people into doubting whether global warming
is really happening. Short-term weather patterns have an effect on
the way some people answer questions on climate change, as
studies have now indicated.
This suggests the dip down to 72 per cent ‘belief’ in climate
change may have had more to do with the cold spring than any
significant changes in people’s outlook. It certainly makes any
claim that belief in climate change has ‘fallen’ look a little
So what can polls really tell us about what people think about
climate change? Most people think it’s happening – and that number
has remained high through the years. But the way you ask the
question is likely to colour the response. All in all, inferring
what people believe from how they answer is a tricky process.