Financial Times FT.com

Cause for concern

By Kate Mackenzie

Published: December 2 2009 13:58 | Last updated: December 2 2009 13:58

Months before the Kyoto protocol was signed in 1997, it was killed by the US Senate. A motion sponsored by senators from the mining and farm states of West Virginia and Nebraska ruled out ratification of the pact unless developing countries were brought into the system. US Congress has never ratified the deal.

The episode illustrates how important it is that negotiators at the climate change talks in Copenhagen next week carry public opinion with them. Not every country allows its legislators the amount of leeway given to the US Senate to scupper international agreements, but a deal that fails the public opinion test risks failing altogether.

Survey data from around the world tell a fairly consistent story about the public’s views on climate change. Most citizens, from rich and poor countries alike, believe climate change is important and concerning. Support is high for the abstract idea of tackling the issue, even if it means harming jobs or the economy. Majorities in 23 of 25 countries in a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project agreed with the proposition.

Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias, director of the environmental policy and culture program at Northwestern University, Illinois, reviewed several international surveys and found there was little correlation between a country’s average gross domestic product per capita and concern about climate change among its citizens. Even more surprising, she says, was that a general willingness to bear some costs to achieve environmental protection was not highly correlated to GDP.

Wolinsky-Nahmias says the public seems more willing to support action on climate change than their representatives appear to believe. “If you look at the very high levels of concern, and the high levels of support for costly policy measures, it seems in some measures the public is ahead of government,” she says.

But talk is cheap. While support for costly measures and even taxes is high in many countries, numbers fell sharply – especially in developed countries – when participants in the Pew Global survey were asked if they would pay higher prices to address climate change.

Support is surprisingly high for some of the more complex approaches up for discussion at Copenhagen. In 20 of the 21 countries surveyed by the BBC World Service, most supported the idea that developing countries should limit their emissions in exchange for financing and technology from the developed world.

While support for international agreements to tackle climate change is high, carbon cap-and-trade systems – the most widely accepted mechanism for reducing emissions among policymakers – receive short shrift in many public surveys.

Levels of knowledge about cap-and-trade systems are poor. A survey by HSBC found that respondents in 12 of the world’s biggest economies, both developed and emerging, thought governments should be doing more to support renewable technologies. But there was relatively little interest – either for or against – in the question of carbon trading.

Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change at the University of East Anglia, England, and founding director of the respected UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, argues that the rapid climate change the world is now facing is such an abstract and unprecedented event that people, lacking the means to comprehend what it means, seek to describe it in allegorical ways.

For some it is an opportunity for justice, for others a reason to pull back from our focus on growth and consumption. Still others see it as a technological challenge, or a fight, or as the tragedy of human destruction of nature.

Different countries, he says, see climate change in different ways, depending on their history and their own experience of the environment.

For example, cooking food on wood fires in developing countries is a large contributor to climate change, as a result of the black soot it creates. But in those countries, health concerns around soot may be greater than environmental fears. “If you look at cookers, there’s a huge health burden that health workers in India are acutely aware of,” Hulme says. “It’s not about keeping climate change to 2°C, whatever that means to them,” he says.

Wolinsky-Nahmias agrees. “People are more aware of risks that may affect their own lives, especially in countries that are more vulnerable, which are often very poor countries,” she says. “They are experiencing water shortages and desertification, so there are consequences they are seeing, and they are beginning to feel the pain, or at least what they interpret to be part of the future.”

On an individual basis, Wolinsky-Nahmias found, concern did not always translate into a willingness to take action. Those who were concerned and chose to take action tended to be more politically interested and more informed. But this left a large segment of respondents in many countries who said they were “concerned” or even “highly concerned” about climate change, but did not take any action themselves.

Surveys tend to show that changes to behaviour and consumption are more popular if they are easy and cheap, such as switching off lights when not in use, though these tend to be the least effective measures.

Large majorities in an FT/Harris survey carried out in the US and several of the wealthier European countries said they switched off lights when not in use, and recycled rubbish. But a much smaller majority said they turned down air conditioning or heating, and well under half had reduced the amount of driving they did.

Two university studies in the UK have found widespread resistance to the idea of flying less to reduce emissions – and that, by some measures, it is worst among those who believe they take important action by reducing their electricity use and recycling rubbish.

Nevertheless, fears that the economic downturn would see a dramatic plunge in concern about climate change have proved exaggerated. In the US, Pew Research Center found in January that while concern about the economy and jobs rose between 2008 and 2009, concern over climate change fell by 5 per cent – but this was far less than the reduction in concern over other issues, such as healthcare, immigration and crime.

The picture in other countries is ambivalent. The Pew Global survey in July showed large declines in concern levels in Turkey, Poland and Japan over the preceding 18 months – but large increases in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Nigeria.

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