2019 has been a year of climate records broken23 (again) and, as the Met Office confirmed a new UK record temperature of 38.7C, there has been report24 after report25 showing that we are heading for catastrophe. Not even our butterflies will be spared.
Amid the gloom, shifting UK attitudes give cause for some optimism; the public now see climate change as an increasingly pressing issue, and they want action. But we have been here before, only to see climate change fall back off the radar. Will it be different this time?
The UK is not on track to hit its target to bring emissions to net-zero by 2050.26 Meeting this target will require a step-change in action from policymakers, businesses and brands, as well as the public.
Good news, then, that public concern about climate change is higher than ever before. But does this mean that climate change will finally get the focus it needs?
Not necessarily. Public concern was at a similar level 14 years ago, only for apathy and inaction to set in as priorities changed, with the global recession overwhelming longer term concerns with short-term financial worries. But there are reasons to believe the climate will remain a hot topic this time. More people are noticing the effects now; 73% think Britain is already feeling the effects of climate change, up 32% from 2010. The public also understand the need for urgency and want more to be done: 55% think Britain should bring emissions to net-zero before 2050.
The Greta Thunberg effect
The rising tide of younger generations may also help to keep the climate high on the agenda. In just over a year, the school strike for climate campaign has grown from a solitary Swede to a worldwide movement of millions. Younger generations have grown up witnessing the effects of climate change and 18-24 year-olds are more aware of the issues climate change causes, such as drought, regional conflicts, security risks and ocean acidification, among others.27 Just 4% of the British public spontaneously name ‘pollution/environment’ as the most important issue facing Britain today, but this rises to 10% among 18-24 year-olds. For policymakers and governments it may now be more difficult to shake climate change off their list of priorities.
But it’s not just the youth who are taking to the streets in protest. At the time of writing, parts of central London have been shut down in the latest protest by Extinction Rebellion. This is an unprecedented era of climate activism that could keep the climate under the spotlight.
Agents of change
Still, keeping everyone focused on climate change requires more than public pressure. Policy itself can drive perceptions, rather than vice versa. After the Government introduced the 5p bag charge, people became increasingly positive about it, with support in England increasing from 52% before it was introduced to 62% just six months later: plastic bag usage fell by 85%.28
This year, the Government and local councils declared a ‘climate emergency’. This is mostly a symbolic gesture for now, but the change in language may help. The term ‘climate emergency’ carries a sense of urgency and a call to action that ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ lack. It is also a statement of intent, and that could be important in keeping spirits high. Thirty-eight per cent say that if they had more hope that we could reduce climate change, they would be more likely to act. This is also an important consideration for messaging about climate change. The public need to know the consequences of their inaction, but there does need to be a sense of optimism to empower people to act.
The vast majority of scientists agree there is a climate emergency, but if it doesn’t feel that way, there won’t be an emergency response. We will keep watching in the 2020s to see how this progresses and, as our recent study for Deloitte showed, the public say they are willing to see big changes.