PUBLIC OPINION

British launch ad campaign to raise fading climate concerns

LONDON -- The U.K. government has launched a guilt-laden advertising campaign after a series of opinion polls showed that the majority of the public has not bought into climate change despite years of political haranguing and millions of pounds spent on information and advertising.

The campaign started with screenings of a 60-second television spot showing a father reading a bedtime story to his young daughter, telling her about the ravages from climate change and its human causes. It ends with her asking, "Is there a happy ending?"

"It is up to us to see how the story ends. See what you can do," comes a maternal voice-over.

The ad was prompted by market research showing that 52 percent of people don't believe that climate change will affect them and 18 percent don't believe it will even affect their children.

"The advertisement is very emotive. But it is directed to the feedback we got from our research," said a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which organized the £5.75 million ($9.56 million) campaign.

"People see climate change as something far off. But they are prepared to act if they understand that it will affect their children," she told E&E. Flagging interest in climate change also poses a problem for the Obama administration in the United States. With little more than a month before the United States is expected to lead in international climate talks in Copenhagen, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows only 35 percent of Americans see global warming as a serious problem, a drop of 9 percentage points since last year.

The British government's campaign, aimed at shoring up waning support, will also be in print, and will run until mid-November. It notes that some 40 percent of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by Britons comes from housing and personal transport. It immediately drew more than 200 complaints to the advertising standards authority, the national watchdog for misleading advertising. The DECC spokeswoman said the bulk of the complaints were over the science cited in the ad.

That, she said, came as something of a shock. "At the climate negotiations, people say the science is settled, and we must move forward. But this suggests that the public doesn't necessarily buy that," she said.

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Climate change? Yes, but not in our backyards

It comes at an awkward time for the government as Prime Minister Gordon Brown exhorts his fellow world leaders to agree on a far-reaching new climate pact at a crunch meeting in Copenhagen in December, with tough emissions curbs on all developed countries, reduced emission growth paths for major developing nations and massive transfers of money and technology from rich to poor.

The opinion poll behind the new DECC campaign is echoed by new research by pollster YouGov for Consumer Focus, a consumer lobby group set up a year ago.

That showed that British consumers are far more aware of climate change than they were two years ago, but still less than half feel they may be at risk from heat waves and less than one-third from flooding -- two of the likely consequences of climate change. Both heat waves and floods have hit Britain in the past six years.

At the same time, the number of people who feel they will not be affected at all by climate change has nearly doubled to 25 percent now from 13 percent in 2007. The YouGov research also found that the level of awareness and concern about climate change hardly varied across social groupings.

More research using focus groups, published last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank, produced very similar findings: Essentially, Britons are bored by climate change, with some describing it as "a gimmick," "a bit faddy" or a "bandwagon."

Others covered by the IPPR research expressed cynicism over the level of government rhetoric on the issue. "I find it all a bit schizophrenic when they open new airport terminals for everyone and drive us mad about what we are doing to the environment when we are flying off every day," was one comment from a female participant in London.

Is cost the explanation?

For IPPR researcher Simon Retallack, the reasons are simple. Being green still costs too much.

This, he says, is because while the government has, after a very slow start, begun to make a lot of noise about the personal responsibility of everyone to act on climate change, it has still done very little to make personal action affordable.

Sale and manufacture of traditional incandescent 100-watt and frosted light bulbs are now banned across the 27-nation European Union, and while their low-energy alternatives have fallen steeply in price, they remain relatively expensive.

Highly energy-efficient domestic appliances like refrigerators and washing machines also remain expensive, while hybrid cars are high-priced and the few electric car models available have a poor public profile. At the same time, moves to raise taxes on air transport, road transport and fuel are simply seen as a way to raise money for a government that is running on financial empty after bailing out the banks at the height of the economic crisis.

"The government is doing far too little to make clean tech appliances more attractive," said Retallack. "There need to be incentives to both make and to buy. Being seen to be green is not cool if it makes you look like a fool with an expensive gadget." He noted that it should not be a surprise that people have become disenchanted with climate change. It became a concern during something like the 2003 killer heat wave or the major flooding in northern England in 2007, but otherwise has seemed a rather distant issue.

"Apart from the occasional extreme weather event, business continues much as normal," he told E&E. "For most people, it is not an everyday issue. It is something that happens elsewhere. And taking action on a personal level is still too expensive."

While pollster IPSOS-MORI said it had not published any recent climate change-related work, a survey last year found that only 1 in 3 people believed that climate change was due mainly to human activities.

"People are getting mixed messages, and it is easy to latch on to sceptical voices if it helps to justify your own inaction," a spokesman said.

And it would appear that it is not just in Britain or the United States that climate has been shoved to the back burner after enjoying a higher profile. In Australia, a recent poll found that the topic had dropped to seventh on a list of foreign policy concerns, despite a decadelong drought and multiple bush fires. It was ranked No. 1 in 2007, when the country finally ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

The issue is still seen as very important by 56 percent of people -- far higher than in Britain -- but that itself is down 19 points from 2007. In the United States, repeated polls show a majority of people are concerned about climate change, but when respondents are asked to rank it against their concerns about other issues, such as the economy, national security or education, climate sinks to the bottom of the list.

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