Sep 16, 2011
Mind over matter: public opinion and the climate and energy debates
In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami caused serious problems at Japan's Fukushima nuclear-power plant. As a result former prime minister Naoto Kan promised to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear power. Similar shifts in mindset have occurred even further afield – Germany and Switzerland both plan to phase out nuclear power, and an Italian referendum has rejected nuclear energy.
Nick Pidgeon of Cardiff University, UK, who specializes in public attitudes to technology and risk, has been watching the situation with interest. "Up until Fukushima public attitudes to nuclear power were becoming more favourable," he told environmentalresearchweb. "The framing of nuclear as a low-carbon option over the last 10 years had clearly impacted public attitudes."
It's too early to conclude how Fukushima has affected public opinion until "repeated tracking studies" can map changes compared to surveys a year before. But in the polls that have been done so far, says Pidgeon, there hasn't been a complete reversal of support for nuclear energy. That said, the results vary greatly by country.
People have become a bit bored at hearing about climate change all the time; yet another climate story and the world hasn't drowned yet Nick Pidgeon
"Support in Germany was always much more fragile than elsewhere, with stronger views against nuclear energy even prior to Fukushima," said Pidgeon. "France is a very different case again because of its history of large amounts of nuclear generation and limited fossil fuels. In the UK we'd moved to a position where there were probably just about more people supporting the renewal of nuclear power than opposed to it."
The Fukushima events may mean that there are now slightly fewer people for nuclear power in the UK and slightly more against, Pidgeon believes. "That's very different to the situation after Chernobyl where most people were against nuclear energy and wanted it shut down," he added.
Part of the reason for this disparity may be the distance from Japan to the UK. What's more, the initial trigger for the problems was a tsunami and although the events "were not fully a natural disaster, people understand this was a fairly major natural hazard impact on this plant".
It's not only attitudes towards nuclear power that vary by country: opinion on climate change also shows national trends. "If you go to some developing nations where the climate change threat is particularly severe from, say, sea-level rise, there'll be a different view on it from somewhere like Russia where oil and gas are a very important part of the economy," explained Pidgeon. "Go to Australia and obviously the droughts they've had, forest fires, some flooding as well, have made climate change very salient for them. Each country is a bit different."
In North America, Britain and many other European countries, there's been a general decline in concern about climate change over the last five years – something that the 2009 "ClimateGate" saga, in which e-mails between climate scientists at the UK's University of East Anglia (UEA) and their colleagues around the globe were made public, did little to dispel. By happy accident Pidgeon was part-way through a five-year project to track public attitudes towards climate change when ClimateGate occurred, and so was able to monitor its effects.
"After the UEA e-mails there was a further decline in both belief that climate change was happening and concern for climate change," said Pidgeon. "It wasn't a huge change but it was enough to register on opinion polls."
In a 2005 survey by Pidgeon's team, 91% of respondents thought that the world's climate was changing; just 4% said that the climate wasn't changing. In 2010, meanwhile, 78% believed that climate was changing and 15% that it wasn't.
"It's about a 10% change. That includes the small decline we've seen – one or two percentage points per year – plus a component due to the UEA e-mails," explained Pidgeon. "Since then [ClimateGate] it looks like there hasn't been any further change downwards."
Outside the UK it appears that the UEA e-mail leaks had far less impact on climate-change belief. "People asked in America whether anybody had heard of it [ClimateGate] not so long after the controversy and only a very small percentage actually said they had," added Pidgeon.
Decline and fall
So what's been causing the steady decline in belief? Pidgeon reckons one possibility could be the financial crisis, which has made the environment seem less important to some. Also, climate fatigue may be kicking in – people "have become a bit bored at hearing about climate change all of the time; yet another climate story and the world hasn't drowned yet". And the area has "moved into a policy debate rather than a pure science debate".
In the States there's a very strong political divide along party lines on climate change – among the public not just among political commentators. It's almost like gun law and abortion Nick Pidgeon
According to Pidgeon, this evolution into a policy debate means that matters are being progressed by politicians, who the public trust far less than independent scientists to say anything about science. "The debate has moved out of the control of the scientists; it's not just involving them, it's involving lots of other people, who they may or may not agree with," he said. "In the States there's a very strong political divide along party lines on climate change – among the public not just among political commentators. It's almost like gun law and abortion."
In the UK, the situation is much less polarized, partly because there has been a broad political consensus on climate change. "There hasn't been a fight among the political parties about it and that does actually filter through into public attitudes," said Pidgeon. "The two are related but not in a straightforward way."
Advice to a young climate scientist
So if the nature of the debate is shifting how should climate scientists proceed? Pidgeon believes that researchers should continue to communicate the core of what is certain about climate science, using statements such as "the climate is changing; we cannot fully explain it through natural causes; there's clearly an anthropogenic element; and it's being caused by what we do and there are ways to deal with it".
Beyond this, however, scientists will need to become much more adept at communicating risk. "The projections of what will happen in the future are entirely in risk terms," said Pidgeon. "We don't know for certain that London's going to flood in 2080 because the Thames barrier will become inadequate, for example, but there is an increased risk of that happening, albeit low."
Overcoming climate fatigue is very difficult to do, however. "If I had a clear answer to that I would have bottled it a long time ago and be telling everybody about it," said Pidgeon. "It's a complicated set of questions and if you do keep banging on about abstract science without any obvious tangible everyday evidence that it's happening then people will get bored. The media will concentrate on it for a while and eventually we've seen too much of it."
Part of the problem is that "climate change is still psychologically quite distant for people in both geographic and temporal terms". Many of us feel that it will "affect other people at other times, it won't affect us". Pidgeon says there is some evidence that linking conversations about climate change to potential impacts at a local or national level could help. "We need to materialize climate change for people," he said. "Relocalizing the impacts and showing that they are happening is one way of overcoming that psychological distancing."
The big challenge is to be able to present the awful situation, which the science tells us about without it looking like you're trying to persuade people from a more political perspective Nick Pidgeon
Pidgeon believes it's crucial that scientists do not get drawn into the more politicized areas of the debate. "This is very difficult as some of them think they should, because they've got a moral duty to say this is an awful situation we are facing, and others feel they should try to maintain their independence and neutrality," he explained. "The big challenge is to be able to present the awful situation, which the science tells us about without it looking like you're trying to persuade people from a more political perspective."
Indeed Pidgeon wrote about such "non-persuasive communication" earlier this year. "It is a slight impossibility at one level, but the idea is that you're trying to get across what you know and what is true – in the sense that anything is true in science – but without trying to take a pure advocacy position," he added.
When it comes to mitigating against climate change, people's beliefs are crucial because they feed into which energy technologies they're willing to accept. With this in mind, Pidgeon is looking at how the public is receiving both existing and emerging energy technologies, including nuclear energy and renewables. The project, run on behalf of the UK Energy Research Centre, is examining attitudes towards a change in the whole energy system – both supply and demand. "Rather than looking at a single facet, we're trying to understand what decarbonization would mean for society as a whole; whether members of the public have any view on this; and, when presented with the scenarios [of energy supply and demand to 2050], what their views are and the points of resistance and acceptance," said Pidgeon. "This is actually quite innovative."
While you could solve energy-security and climate-change issues simply by reducing energy demand, telling people that they are only to drive one-fifth of their previous mileage or that they must have an electric car may not be politically acceptable, says Pidgeon. But some demand reduction will be necessary, both through technology and through behaviour change.
On the supply side, the project is looking at attitudes to moving away from fossil fuels to a mix of renewables, possibly including a baseload of nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage (CCS). The changes could involve people using electricity rather than gas to heat their homes.
"To give you an example, if we decarbonize transport by creating a system of electric vehicles for personal and industrial transport then we're going to have to build more power stations," said Pidgeon. "We'll have to find that from renewables, nuclear power or fossil fuels with CCS if we want to meet climate targets, so demand and supply are linked in that way." By presenting people with this whole picture, the hope is to get them to think through some of the implications for their everyday lives, and to find out what citizens feel the future energy supply and demand system should look like.
Pidgeon is currently conducting workshops in six locations across the UK. He'll explain potential energy scenarios to 70 people and investigate their attitudes towards them. This work will help the design of a survey of 2000 participants due to take place in spring 2012; the results will be fed back to policymakers.
With climate-change mitigation clearly urgent but international legislation in some disarray, public attitudes towards energy policy could be a key factor in how far countries go in their attempts to decarbonize. Watch this space for updates.
About the author
Liz Kalaugher is editor of environmentalresearchweb.