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Radical policy on climate change not such a leap for the public

Would you give up flying to fight climate change? caribb

With the publication of its Fifth Assessment Report in Stockholm last week, the collected scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the most unequivocal statement about the dangers of anthropogenic climate change to date.

Yet headlines such as “More hot air from scaremongers” in the Daily Express illustrate the continued reluctance of a small but vocal group of sceptics to accept the conclusions.

Increasingly, experts are trying to redirect the debate towards what governments are actually going to do to put the brakes on carbon emissions. Lord Stern, the author of the highly influential 2006 report on the economics of climate change, has called on governments to stop procrastinating and ensure the “kind of world we want to present to our children and grandchildren”. The next major UN meeting in 2015 - seen as the follow-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit - is expected to put in place a global climate agreement to cut carbon emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground.

The IPCC’s report takes as a given that governments need to lead committed action, in spite of fierce debate in the media and potential institutional barriers. But any stepped up commitment to global and local low carbon economies is unlikely to happen without wider understanding and behavioural change - and this must be behavioural change that achieves far more than failing initiatives such as the Green Deal. It could potentially mean action that is much more disruptive to our daily lives – curbs on flying, or a cap on home energy use. What would it actually take for the public to accept such radical action on climate change?

It appears climate scepticism among the general public is rising. A new survey from the UK Energy Research Centre suggests the proportion of the British public who do not think the world’s climate is changing has grown exponentially since 2005. Scepticism is a difficult thing to measure, but the perception of climate change as a priority, perhaps easier to calculate, has also dwindled in recent times – a reflection in part of the recent dip in media attention.

But research conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group along with Chatham House investigating the impact of media coverage on attitudes to climate change action found a majority of respondents, even those who might be classified as sceptical in some way, concede action will have to be taken at some point. There is a sense of its inevitability in spite of all the fears about economic priorities and the dangers of taking the wrong path.

It is a leap, however, from this kind of understanding to changing everyday behaviour. The research indicates there are three key factors to consider in moving from sympathy to action. The first is how public debate can be focused to give clear messages to overcome current confusions and uncertainties. There is much talk of a move to the language of risk rather than “uncertainty”, a term that make it easier for sceptics to hijack conversations about the appropriateness of action. This reframing would also have an impact on the second barrier: perceptions that action isn’t a priority or is too expensive in times of austerity.

Finally, findings suggest such concerns are less powerful in an environment in which evidence-based action is organised at the collective level. A bit like it was with wearing seat belts in cars and smoking in pubs. The public might not have liked it but the debate convinced them it was for the greater good. Everyone does their bit. In contrast, policies which are seen as unrepresentative, or perceived to be rushed through on the basis of incomplete evidence – as has been the case with shale gas extraction – are likely to be resisted. But arguments for action combined with effective communications and government-organised collective action would be most likely – albeit grudgingly in some cases – to be accepted by the public.