Monday, 28 September 2009

A Failure of Public Response to Climate Change?

Public Opinion and Climate Change Information

The latest Eurobarometer survey (2009) of Europeans’ attitudes towards climate change showed that Europeans generally feel well informed about global warming issues. Nevertheless climate change now ranks only third amongst what Europeans consider to be the world's most serious problems.

In July 2009 50% of Europeans saw climate change as the world's greatest problem but this represents a decline in importance compared with the 2008 EU survey when 62% of Europeans expressed that view. It is suggested that the world financial crisis being the top news issue in late 2008-9 may have affected the public perception of important world issues including climate change; however there may be other factors underlying the apparent decline in interest.

Measuring opinion about how the public view climate change is difficult, but public support is necessary if effective policies to combat climate change are to be implemented.

In a World Bank Working Paper 4940 (2009) Norgaard reviews the literature on levels of public knowledge about climate change, and citizens degree of concern about it, and provides analysis and policy suggestions.

The author suggests that there has been a 'worldwide failure of public response' to climate change and 'despite scientific evidence that climate change is serious problem having been available over the last 20 years, there has been a decline in public interest and concern about global warming'.

Public Opinion and Climate Change Information

From the literature review in the working paper a number of notable findings were adduced, and of particular interest are those related to information provision about climate change and public opinion.

- 'an almost universal finding worldwide' is the lack of understanding by the public of the basics of climate science

but also that

- a thorough understanding of climate change information is not a pre-requisite for people to show concern

and, interestingly, that

- public access to information about climate change does not necessarily result in public concern or actions to mitigate climate change

That having access to information about climate change does not lead to public concern seems counter intuitive given the serious nature of the evidence from climate science.

Most public information about climate change originates from news media and comes in a variety of forms. If news media are the primary source of public information about climate change then the absence or presence of the topic, and its depiction, provides the public with a measure of its relative importance.

Amongst other content, the World Bank working paper includes an analysis of climate change discourse in the media and Norgaard suggests that if news media are to be 'an effective agent of change' then three criteria should be fulfilled. The news media need to

- represent climate change as a serious problem

- send a clear message that the problem can be solved

- provide correct information about responses to climate change

Socially Organised Denial of Climate Change

There would appear to be a failure in the communication process such that climate change information does not transfer through public awareness into personal response or support for public policy.

The working paper analyses existing explanations for the lack of public response to climate change and suggests that public reaction could be understood in terms of a concept of 'socially organised denial' which draws on both sociological and psychological perspectives.

It is suggested that climate change information is known in the abstract but 'people work to avoid acknowledging disturbing information' and that people consider problems as serious only if they can see actions that can be taken to provide a solution.

Changing European Attitudes

The 2009 EU survey shows that more than half of Europeans feel well informed about the cause, consequences and methods of fighting climate change, although there are quite wide national variations. Around two thirds of citizens say that they have taken personal actions to combat climate change (these are most likely to be people saying that they are well-informed about climate change and those who think that climate change is a very serious problem).

Nevertheless there seems to have been a decline in interest in climate change since the Eurobarometer environment survey of 2007 which reported that 'Europeans are very concerned by global warming and a very large majority of them (89%) are in favour of the European Union taking urgent action'.

Questions remain about whether climate change information is being communicated in a way which engages the public,whether the information presented raises public concern and whether that concern is translated into individual actions and support for climate change mitigation policies.

Europeans, with a relatively high literacy rate and good access to information, seem to regard climate change as a serious issue. However in the period preceding the COP15 negotiations, they apparently feel climate change is less important than they did two years previously.

Using the three criteria cited above we may ask-

Is this due to a failure to communicate climate change as a serious problem?

Probably not.

The 2009 Eurobarometer survey suggests that EU citizens feel well informed about climate change and are concerned.

Has the public been given a clear message that climate change is a solvable problem?

Probably not.

The media discourse not been very coherent, providing a mix of information about threats and consequences, has conveyed the impression that there is much discord between nations, and has been pessimistic about the prospects of an agreement at COP15. That controlling CO2 emissions is important has probably been communicated, but how this delivers a solution to climate change has not.

Is the European public subject to the 'socially organised denial' suggested by Norgaard?


The climate change discourse in the media has, in the run up to the COP15 negotiations, been fairly negative, expressed in terms of disagreements between nations about emissions mitigation, and the evidence and predictions from climate science have been portrayed as more serious than previously thought, and with more dire consequences. Optimism about climate change solutions has been lacking.

In contrast, the recent world banking crisis has been portrayed as a critical world issue but one with actions already being taken to tackle it, implying it is a solvable problem.

More Effective Messages about Climate Change are needed

While Europeans profess concern about climate change it now ranks only third in their estimation of the world's most serious problems. This might suggest that the messages about climate change in the media have been ineffective in fully engaging public opinion

Are the public failing to respond to climate change by avoiding acknowledging disturbing information (socially organised denial) or are they genuinely losing interest?

The effectiveness of communications about climate change to the public may need to be reconsidered if post-2012 policy and actions to combat climate change are to command public support.


European Commission (2009) Special Eurobarometer 313. Europeans’ attitudes towards
climate change.

European Commission (2008) Special Eurobarometer 300. Europeans’ attitudes towards
climate change.

European Commission (2007) Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment

The World Bank Norgaard K M
(May 2009)Policy Research Working Paper 4940
Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges
in Responding to Climate Change.

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