LONDON -- Britons, who a decade ago were deeply concerned about climate change and its impacts on their surroundings, have started shrugging their shoulders. They are turning to different issues as economic hardship and adverse publicity about the science make their impact felt, according to a new survey.
The British Social Attitudes 2011 survey -- an annual survey but one that only occasionally covers climate change -- shows that almost across the age, economic, social and educational spectrum, the issue has dropped well down the list of priorities.
The report mentioned what it termed "environment fatigue" as a potential factor in the rise in climate skepticism.
"People, despite their exposure to mounting evidence concerning the negative future consequences of climate change, may have come to feel over time that climate change has little to do with them personally or their lives," it said.
Researchers at the National Centre for Social Research think one of the main causes of the massive change of heart are the so-called 'Climategate' emails stolen from scientists at the University of East Anglia in late 2009. They suggest attempts were made to hide or distort evidence that did not fit scientists' climate change conclusions, but multiple investigations found no wrongdoing.
Still, the emails had an effect. "There was something that happened between 2009 and 2010 that certainly had an impact on the extent to which people worried about travel in relation to climate change, and that led us to argue that Climategate may well have affected attitudes," said Alison Park, one of the report's authors, in an interview with ClimateWire.
A public not jaded, but confused
"I wouldn't say that people are jaded with climate change. A better word might be confused. People are hearing a range of messages about climate change and there is a lot of discussion about it. So I am not at all surprised that some people find it very hard to really form a view or to know whose voice to listen to," she added.
The report found a clear rise in the number of people expressing skepticism about climate change since 2000 which it said was directly linked to a decline in concern about the effects of climate change.
The survey specifically included climate change in 1993, 2000 and 2010. Although it included some peripheral aspects such as pollution and transport in intervening years, it found that the number of people believed that many claims about environmental threats were exaggerated jumped to 37 percent in 2010 from 24 percent in 2000. Meanwhile those disagreeing with the statement slumped to 32 percent from 45.
Likewise, the number of people agreeing that every time they used coal or gas they were contributing to climate change dropped to 20 percent in 2010 from 35 percent in 2000, while those saying it was not the case rose to 17 percent from 12 percent.
The percentage of people saying there was too much focus on the environment and not enough about jobs shot up to 43 in 2010 from just 35 in 2000. At the same time, the number of people saying there was too much concern about people harming the environment had risen to 35 percent from 28 percent in 2000.
Over the same period, the percentage of people who have even signed a petition about an environmental issue slumped to just 22 in 2010 from 30 in 2000, while those who have given money to an environmental group fell to 16 percent from 23 in 2000.
Activism and behavior change decline
While the number of people recycling has surged to 86 percent in 2010 from 51 percent in 2000 as local governments make it either obligatory or at least effortless to do so, those taking more active measures like reducing energy or water use or driving less is stubbornly low.
"It seems, generally, that people may be less likely to change their behavior for the sake of the environment if this will cost them money, time or effort," the survey said. "If they are also feeling less worried about climate change they may feel there is even less reason to alter their behavior."
The number of people, for instance, concerned about the impact of travel on climate change slid from 80 percent in 2005 to just 68 percent in 2010, and while air travel has got considerably cheaper, the number of people worrying about its effect on climate change has barely changed at 66 percent in 2010 from 64 percent in 2005.
Not surprisingly, the survey found a sharp increase in unwillingness to pay environmental taxes or levies among the lower income bracket. But is also found a steep decline in concerns about climate change among the elderly and those with low or no educational qualifications -- where in the latter category concern dropped to just 28 percent in 2010 from 47 percent in 2000.
Among the elderly, concern about climate change dropped to 28 percent for those over 65 years from 47 percent in 2000. Among the young -- aged 18 to 34 -- concern fell to 48 percent from 52 percent.
The report concluded with a call for politicians and the government to deliver the message of the threat of climate change clearly and unequivocally and to actively promote climate-beneficial behavior.
"If the government is to increase the prevalence of such behaviors among the general public, addressing levels of concern and skepticism about the causes of climate change may be a logical place to start," it concluded.