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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.