Perceptions of climate impacts at odds with scientific data

Global Warming Policy Forum Press Release | April 1, 2021

A new Savanta ComRes poll commissioned by the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF) has revealed low levels of public awareness of key trends relating to climate change and international development.

The survey of British adults suggests that the public perceive the impacts of climate change to be more negative than the academic research would suggest. However, there is also a significant minority of the public who say they are ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ concerned by climate change.

In total, 28% of respondents said they were ‘very concerned’ about climate change, 42% said ‘fairly concerned’, 18% were ‘not very concerned’ and 6.4% described themselves as ‘not at all concerned’.

Surprisingly, younger people were actually less likely to say they were ‘very concerned’ about climate change than older generations.

Respondents were then asked a series of questions to test their knowledge of key trends. The first one asked ‘To the closest degree, how much has the average global temperature on Earth risen in the last 150 years?’ They were given a choice between ‘10°C’, ‘5°C’ and ‘1°C’.

Just 21% of respondents gave the correct answer of ‘1°C’, with 35% saying ‘5°C’, and 16% thought the world would warm by a staggering ‘10°C’, a figure that would mean the Earth was at its hottest for tens of millions of years.

The next question looked at mortality from climate-related natural disasters[1]. In contrast to alarming press coverage about extreme weather, the number of people dying has actually fallen by 95% since the 1920s, according to data from the OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database. Only 8.8% of respondents replied correctly, with 12% saying it had increased by 95% and 42% saying it had increased by 25%.

Recent coverage of wildfires in the western United States and in Australia has helped create a perception that wildfires are becoming more frequent. Headlines such as ‘Australia is being burned alive by the climate crisis’and dramatic footage of wildfires could well be influencing people’s views.

But the data show that fires are not becoming more frequent or widespread worldwide. While there is evidence to suggest that ‘fire weather’ is becoming more common in certain areas, overall this impact is more than counteracted by fire suppression efforts. These efforts have led to a ~25% reduction in the annual global burnt area since 2003, a finding that is based on observations from NASA satellites.

There was low public awareness of this trend, with a plurality of respondents (39%) answering that they thought the total land area affected by wildfires had actually increased by 25% since 2003. 10% of people thought that the area affected had ‘decreased by 50%’ and 16% gave the correct answer of a decrease of 25%.

One question that the public seemed to have a better grasp of was the rate of global sea level rise. 34% gave the correct answer according to the Royal Society, of 3.6mm/year on average over the past decade, with 20% opting for 0.36mm/year and 12% going for 30.6mm/year.

The final question concerned food production. Statistics from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that global food production has increased by 34% since 2005. While 39% of respondents were able to correctly identify that food production had increased during this period, a significant share, 20%, thought food production had actually gone down.

The results support the findings of previous studies which show a strong negativity bias when people are asked about changes to living conditions. This appears to be no different when it comes to climate change, with the public disposed to believe that things are getting worse; whether that be the physical processes of extreme weather themselves, or their impact on society.

Fieldwork was conducted 20-21 February 2021. Full tables are available here.

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