Climate change: Why we don't believe it

We reveal an unreported gulf between the pronouncements of campaigners and politicians and British p

Global warming is a threat that is going to wipe out civilisation as we know it. The liberal elite and political classes are signed up to the message that, unless we take urgent action within ten years, we are all literally doomed to burn up.

But who else believes them?

Beyond the corridors of Westminster and the offices of environmental pressure groups, where global warming and sustainability are buzzwords of the moment, British consumers continue flying, driving and buying with unchecked enthusiasm. The gulf between the pronouncements of our politicians and what the majority of people think and do, could scarcely be wider.

A survey by the polling organisation MORI, published at the end of last year but unreported by the mainstream media, found that about a third of the population - 32 per cent - still knows little or nothing about the threat of climate change. Of those who had heard of it, half thought it was at least partly a natural process, and only 11 per cent of those questioned thought it was up to individuals to change their behaviour. MORI's head of research, John Leaman, acknowledges that the battle for public opinion is not only not won, it has not even seriously begun: "The question of how you persuade people that it is to do with them is a very interesting one," he said. "We need to know whether people's attitudes are the consequence of ignorance, disbelief or personal self-interest and inertia. Even among those who do know about climate change, there is a yawning gap between what people say and what they do. I don't think there is any simple answer." As an organisation, MORI is keen to be seen taking this problem seriously. It is planning its own forum in June, to contribute ideas for ways to promote awareness and behaviour change. (Ironically, the identified key speaker appeared to be away on a foreign holiday and could not be contacted for comment.)

How then are our leaders going to engage our hearts and minds in the green debate? What will be the tipping point that will lead people not just into giving the fashionable answers in opinion polls, but to actually change their behaviour?

At the moment we are mired in a bog of confusing messages. In a portentous speech to the Green Alliance last month, the Chancellor Gordon Brown talked about the need for "new global partnerships and multilateral networks" to tackle the environmental challenge. The recent climate change review by the economist Sir Nicholas Stern predicted hundreds of millions of "climate refugees" streaming across the world in an effort to escape from drought, flood and famine.

Yet opinion polls for the BBC and others indicate that the reaction of people hearing these pronouncements is that they are simply relieved to hear the problem is nothing to do with them. An ICM poll last month found about half the people questioned in some parts of the country were quite clear about their unwillingness to change their lifestyle at all. Elsewhere, there is growing scepticism that any of it is true, and the dissenting voices are getting louder. A recent editorial in the Daily Mail told millions of readers that it is pointless to alter drastically the way we live simply on the "vague possibility of an ecological disaster".

In March, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary entitled The Great Global Warming Swindle, which notoriously ridiculed the whole basis of climate change. The programme was furiously condemned by leading scientists as misleading and badly researched. Yet Channel 4 reported that it drew more than 700 comments from viewers, with those supporting its sceptical line outnumbering critics by six to one. "People appreciated the fact that the questioning approach was being given air time," said a Channel 4 spokesman. "We are planning a discussion programme on the whole issue for June. The best time to have a debate is generally when people say there is no further need for one."

Around the same time, a lone protester from an obscure lobby group called the Association of British Drivers (ABD), garnered almost two million signatures for an online petition protesting against the introduction of road pricing as a means of limiting car use. Hugh Bladon, a spokesman for the ABD, claims that he reflects the views of many people in his conviction that discussion of global warming is simply an excuse to raise more taxes from everyone, and motorists in particular. "I enjoy driving," he said. "Lots of people do. It is total nonsense to suggest that it will make a difference if we reduce mileage by a small amount a year."

While it is hard to find anyone - outside the airline industry - to advocate air travel as fervently as Bladon advocates the right to drive, the right to fly is another area of confusion and mixed messages. Even those who regard themselves as "responsible tourists" want to carry on flying. Typical is a comment by travel agent Chris Bland on the GreenTraveller website: "While I agree with trying to limit gratuitous flying by second-home commuters or business travel junkies, I don't want genuine travellers and adventurous tourists to be dissuaded from exploring the world. For me, the message would be: fly less and make it count when you do."

From politicians, however, there is a collective reluctance to take on any of those in the wealthiest and most influential sector of the electorate - whatever their reason for getting on a plane. "Doing anything about global warming is going to hit the middle classes first," says Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary. "A lot of them do support the Daily Mail view that this is just another means of imposing more stealth taxes. Convincing them that being more energy-efficient is actually going to save money - it is not easy."

Sir Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, also points to government resistance to any discussion of limitations on car travel or foreign holidays. "Politicians are preoccupied with trying to keep the same level of consumption with a lower output of carbon. In fact, we will end up paying so much for high-carbon goods that rationing will come in because of price rather than government mandate." Porritt himself believes our collective desire for self-preservation will soon win through because of the evident warming up of our world. Mark Lynas, the New Statesman columnist and author of the book Six Degrees: life in a hotter climate, argues, however, that government action is imperative. "It doesn't make sense for people to make individual sacrifices while the world goes on around them. The unwillingness of people to act just reinforces the need for government to do something collectively."

Elsewhere, there is plenty of support for the view that, barring a Katrina-style hurricane ca tastrophe hitting Britain, consumers will not change. "It's very sad, but I actually think we might need a whole series of disasters in different countries before people make the connection," said Brian Hoskins, professor of meteorology at Reading University and a fellow of the Royal Society. "There has always been a conflict between social behaviour and selfish behaviour, but the environment is bearing down on us. It is a huge challenge to see if we can do something 20 years before it bites. We have to be optimistic about it, because otherwise we might as well give up.

"The political parties have taken off on this, but they have left behind them a considerable proportion of the electorate who are still wedded to Margaret Thatcher's notion of individual freedom to do your own thing."

According to Solitaire Townsend, founder of Futerra, a company specialising in sustainability communications, the obvious way to affect public opinion is through what she terms the cultural media - television soaps such as EastEnders or Desperate Housewives: "It is quite easy to 'de-status' things by presenting them as un- aspirational," she says. "If a big 4x4 is such an embarrassment that the kids don't want to be dropped off at school in it, then that's a success for us. The environmental movement has always focused on news and policy-makers, and forgotten how you change what people want. You can't stop people wanting status symbols, but you can make them aspire to different ones."

Numerous studies of collective psychology demonstrate that the greater the threat, the more people are inclined ignore it. John Elkington, founder of the think-tank SustainAbility, pointed out that, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when America entered the Second World War, Ford went on making cars because they said people needed them. It was only when government intervention forced the company to turn its production lines to munitions, that Ford joined the war effort. "People almost enjoy being confused about big issues because it gives them the excuse to do nothing," Elkington said.

He does not think any major change will be orchestrated by government: "All governments are hopelessly conflicted by the pressures from industry and business. My hunch is that climate is going to give us some powerful nudges, which will cause people to panic. Ultimately though, I don't think change will come about through consumers either. It will be the result of colossal pressure from the financial markets. The costs from natural disasters caused by global warming, which are being born by the reinsurance giants such as Swiss Re and Munich Re, are simply going off the scale."

Unanswerable question

There are still those, however, who maintain that acceptance of the need to change will filter gradually through society. "It is an incredibly interesting social phenomenon," said Tim Jackson, professor of sustainable development at Surrey University. "I think we are at a turning point in the relationship between mankind and the environment, but people so far still don't see the responsibility as theirs. They think it is the job of government and big business. At some stage, society as a whole is going to have to enter the discussion."

The unanswerable question of how to do that still remains. Last month, the Market Research Society celebrated its 50th anniversary with a conference discussion heralding the age of the "ethical brand", which it predicted would be embraced first by the "bourgeois bohemians", the economically conservative but socially liberal baby-boomers who are the new establishment. In the absence of a climate-inspired natural disaster, however, it seems unlikely that the threat of global warming will cause the rampant materialism of even the most socially conscious sector of society to be suddenly replaced by a set of long-lost pre-industrial values.

Earlier this month, the 800 scientists involved in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced their latest report. The 1,572-page document, with its predictions of death and destruction in the developing world, provided plenty of reassurance for stubborn westerners that none of it is anything to do with them. So how will the IPCC convince them of the need to accept their responsibility? Its spokesman was baffled by the question: "They just have to," he said.

Not on the evidence so far. Back in London, civil servants at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were last week labouring over their own "behaviour change strategy" - what it would take to get different sections of the population to change their behaviour. Next month, a "citizens summit" is being planned to decide on the shape of this strategy. When Defra was asked for the agenda, however, it was clear that the department still did not know what it would be.

Trying to get the message across . . .

Defra has been running pilot "recycling incentive schemes" across the country, giving vouchers to good recyclers or entering them into recycling lottery prize draws.

Ken Livingstone is offering Londoners £100 cash back if they accept cut-price insulation for their homes.

The Department for Transport's "Cycle to Work" scheme lets employees buy tax-free bikes and accessories through their employers.

Toyota has released an attractive (believe it or not) hybrid car. The part-electric, part-petrol Prius is also exempt from the London congestion charge.

Tesco is attempting to tackle plastic bag wastage with its "Bag for Life" scheme. The hard-wearing bags cost 10p and customers are encouraged to reuse them until they finally wear out (when they are replaced free of charge).

Pop stars including Madonna, Genesis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Razorlight (Johnny Borrell, pictured right) are climbing on board with a series of Live Earth concerts planned across seven continents on 7 July. The intention is to raise popular awareness of climate change. Organisers promise to keep the gigs as carbon-neutral as possible.

The Real Nappy Campaign is trying to persuade parents that giving up disposable nappies will save them at least £300, as well as being better for the environment.

Property sellers now need to provide a "Home Information Pack" to prospective buyers, which includes a certificate on the home's energy efficiency.

Research: Sarah O'Connor