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Only a quarter of UK population concerned about climate change

William McLennan

18th April, 2011

Twice as many people in India and Japan rank climate change as one of the most important environmental issues, highlighting the challenge facing UK policymakers and climatologists

Only a quarter of Britons believe climate change is one of the most important environmental issues facing the UK today, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI and released to the Ecologist this week.

Ambivalence in the UK is in sharp contrast to Asian countries like India, South Korea and Japan where 50 per cent of those polled consider climate change to be one of the most important environmental issues.

The MORI poll involved more than 18,000 people across the world, who were asked to choose the three most important environmental issues facing their country. Of the 24 countries surveyed, the UK was among the least concerned about climate change, with energy security, waste disposal and overpopulation listed as the most pressing environmental issues. Other European countries showed similar results to UK, with people in Germany and Sweden principally concerned with sources of future energy supplies.

Climate researchers put the difference, in part, on the countries susceptibility to climate change. 'India has much less resilience to climate change and less money for adaptation and mitigation. They have an extremely large population in coastal cities which are sensitive to rising sea levels,' says Professor Corrine Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change. 'Bangladesh is also the neighbouring country which is very sensitive to rising sea levels so they might have immigration coming from Bangladesh.'

Direct contact with climatic events increases people’s awareness of climate change and makes them more likely to change their own habits, according to previous research by the Tyndall Centre. Professor Le Quere believes this phenomenon, combined with last year’s notoriously cold British winter, may explain why people in the UK are less concerned about climate change.

‘People tend to associate these events on a very short term and this can be a problem for climate policy. The actions that happen today will have impacts in 20 or 30 years and not just regionally, but worldwide.’

Some suggest a need to increase awareness of the links between everyday issues and climate change, which will in turn create more tangible reasons for people to change their habits. The Green Alliance say the survey highlights the need to make a connection between climate change and 'more concrete things that people care about' and that the Government's policy of 'nudging', favoured by David Cameron, was doomed to failure.

Dr Simon Buckell, from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change agrees. ‘People won’t sign up to expensive and systemic changes unless they are convinced by the evidence,' he says. 'They should be convinced there is a problem we need to do something about and that we have the correct policies to mitigate or adapt to these challenges. Science needs to show how current climate change affects economies and what that can mean going forward. Until people understand if there is, or isn’t a problem, people will be reticent to make a financial commitment.’

MORI researchers urged environmental campaigners to use public concern about energy security to their benefit, suggesting it could provide a 'hook by which campaigners can nudge the public towards many, if not all, pro-environmental behaviours'. WWF agreed saying it was now prioritising the push towards domestic renewable energy - particularly important given that fossil fuels account for around 85 per cent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and two-thirds of global emissions.

‘It is technically and economically feasible for the world to be meeting all of its energy needs from sustainable renewable sources by 2050. We need to get on with it - and the UK, with its massive renewable energy resources, should be at the forefront of the green energy revolution,’ says WWF head of climate change Keith Allot.

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