In the face of the upcoming COP26 climate conference in Glasgow and the Environment Agency’s recent warning that climate change has left us the options to either “adapt or die,” the latest research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies looks at how Britons themselves assess the future and present threat posed by climate change.
We find that a majority (59%) of the British public agrees that climate change is a direct threat to the UK, in addition to a slightly greater proportion (66%) agreeing the world at large is facing a climate emergency. In turn, few respondents disagree that climate change is a direct threat to the UK (14%) or that the world is facing a climate emergency (11%). Agreement with these statements is the majority view across age groups, suggesting a degree of consensus on the fact that climate change poses a real threat to the UK and the world.
However, there is less of a consensus on whether that threat is an imminently existential one. As the Earth inches closer to reaching a global average temperature that is 2°C above pre-industrial levels—an event which the Paris Climate Agreement aims to avert—most Britons are not convinced that this outcome will necessarily spell the downfall of humanity. 41% say they do not think a 2°C rise in global average temperature will make Earth uninhabitable for humans, while 34% say they don’t know. Meanwhile, a quarter (25%) of respondents—including 37% of 18-to-24-year-olds—do think such a temperature rise will leave Earth uninhabitable.
When it comes to climate change’s impact on Britons’ lives today, respondents are also divided. 32% disagree and 29% agree that climate change currently affects their daily life, with a further 35% neither agreeing nor disagreeing. It seems for much of the British public, the threat of climate change is a more distant one.
The extent to which respondents perceive climate change to have an effect on their daily life varies substantially with age. While 39% of both 18-to-24-year-olds and 25-to-34-year-olds agree that climate change currently affects their life, just 17% of those aged 65 and above say the same, with half (50%) of the latter age group instead disagreeing that climate change impacts their daily life.
The same pattern emerges when respondents are asked about climate change’s effect on their communities. Overall, 25% agree that climate change has had a noticeable impact on their local community, but this figure increases to 44% for those aged 18 to 24 and 37% for those aged 25 to 34. Meanwhile, a plurality of 39% of all respondents disagree that climate change has had a noticeable impact on their community, a position which becomes majoritarian for Britons aged 65 and above (59%). Thus, the impact that climate change has had on individuals and communities in Great Britain as perceived by Britons themselves does not appear to be the same across the board.
Looking more specifically at the hazards of environmental changes, rather than the overall concept of climate change, a plurality (41%) of Britons agree that environmental issues such as pollution and loss of biodiversity pose a direct threat to their health at this moment, compared to 19% who disagree. Therefore, while a considerably lower proportion of respondents agree that climate change currently impacts their daily life, Britons are more likely to perceive the specific environmental factors that are driving climate change as a present threat to their health.
Once again, the risk is perceived much more commonly by younger respondents, with 59% of 18-to-24-year-olds and 50% of 25-to-34-year-olds agreeing that environmental issues currently pose a direct threat to their health, compared to 29% of those aged 65 or older.
Our research thus finds that younger generations are more likely to view the ongoing changes in our environment as representing a direct threat to themselves and their communities. Yet, that does not necessarily translate into greater expressed concern about climate change relative to older generations. Whereas 30% of both 18-to-24-year-olds and 25-to-34-year-olds say they are ‘very’ concerned about climate change, larger proportions of respondents aged 55 to 64 (40%) and 65 and above (48%) indicate the same level of concern. Younger Britons are instead more likely than their older counterparts to express that they are ‘moderately’ or ‘a little bit’ concerned.
Accordingly, it seems that younger Britons’ heightened perceptions of the personal threat posed by climate change do not inherently result in heightened professions of concern—though this may in part be influenced by varying interpretations of what it means to be ‘very’ concerned.
Although understandings of the dangers presented by climate change are not uniform throughout the British public, there is a clear sense among Britons of all ages that climate change represents a direct threat to the UK and the world. As a threat that is causing at least a moderate degree of concern among a majority of the population, leaders at the upcoming COP26 conference will be under significant pressure to alleviate this concern by making meaningful commitments to combating climate change.