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Given the increasing lived experience of climate change and the focus on the scale of what we need to do to combat it, it’s not surprising that November 2021 saw the third time that the environment topped the list of national concerns in Ipsos MORI’s monthly Issues Index, reaching its highest ever score since 1988 when the index started including the environment.

The environment was seen as the top issue facing the country, ahead of the economy, the pandemic, healthcare, and education, as well as any other issue raised by Brits. Partly this reflects the media interest in COP26 hosted here in the UK, but it also reflects a trend we saw before the pandemic, where we saw rising concern about the environment before it was interrupted by the pandemic drawing attention away from all other issues.

These levels of concern are not completely unprecedented. We saw similar levels in our polling back in 2005 too, but what happened then was a narrowing of concern about climate change during the Great Recession and its aftermath.

So, what does this tell us?

It suggests that concerns about other issues can temper concern about climate change, including, of course, the economy. Is this time different? Here we are approaching two years of a global pandemic, and we’re again at that high level of concern about climate change, so could this herald a new and consistent high level of concern about the environment and climate change?

If we take as a working assumption that concern about the environment is here to stay, but can be affected by other issues, what does that mean for political support for action addressing environmental and climate change issues?

High levels of concern shows there is a bedrock of support for action, but the Government will also need to engage the public with the implications“

In work done by Ipsos MORI as part of the Climate Engagement Partnership just before COP26, we explored support for some key net zero policies. We found that there was majority support across seven of the eight policies we asked about, and even the final one, higher taxes on red meat and dairy products, had 47% support, with only 32% opposed. This fits the pattern of high levels of public concern about the environment.

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. We then asked people if they would still support that policy in the face of various lifestyle and financial trade-offs, and it often had a marked effect. Taking one policy as an example, 62% of Brits support electric vehicle subsidies initially, but support falls to 42% if the policy meant that they themselves had less choice when buying a new car. So support falls by around a third once people think about the personal impact, even though they don’t all switch into outright opposition.

That effect is compounded once people have to think about the financial implications. If you tell people that they will have to pay more to drive their car, then support for electric vehicle subsidies falls further to 34%, and this time there is a bigger impact on opposition, up to 38% compared with 24% when personal trade-offs were all people were being asked to consider.

This highlights the need for proper understanding of what the public needs to convince them to take the essential steps to achieve net zero. On the one hand, the high levels of concern shows there is a bedrock of support for action, but the Government will also need to engage the public with the implications of actual policies for individuals, and their finances, as well as the potential benefits of a green strategy, and costs of inaction. Otherwise, public support should not be taken for granted.

Addressing the climate emergency will be a huge global challenge which will cut across many facets of our everyday life both personally and professionally. It’s only by understanding that and addressing the consequent concerns that people have that we’ll begin to make progress on this critical issue. This is why Ipsos MORI’s work as part of the Climate Engagement Partnership is so important.

So, while the public may have been converted to the need for concern when it comes to the environment and tackling climate change, they still need to be taken on a journey before they are ready to join the choir.

Kelly Beaver is the Chief Executive of Ipsos MORI. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: ]