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Climate change does not worry a quarter of UK adults

Research from communications consultancy firstlight group earlier this year, found that a significant slab of the UK population - about one in four adults - doesn’t believe climate change is something to worry about. As the effects of climate change become harder to ignore, this number will undoubtedly dwindle (not unlike, say, the disintegrating Doomsday Glacier in the Antarctic). However, as the window to avert the worst consequences of climate change is swiftly closing, the faster we can melt climate scepticism, the better.

So, how can we turn up the heat?

The climate sceptics spoken to as part of the study were vocal about their dislikes. Climate activists, for example, prompted a flash flood of negativity. As did the words ‘green’ and ‘climate crisis’. ‘Net Zero’? Don’t get me started, chief. But surprisingly, they viewed Sir David Attenborough with almost unanimous positivity. Now he was someone you could really trust. He’d been places, he’d seen things you wouldn’t believe.

This was a head-scratcher. David Attenborough? The guy whose documentaries have focused in recent years on the heart-wrenching effects of climate change? Who spoke movingly at COP26 in Glasgow about the rapidly approaching end to human civilisation, unless we wake up and get a grip?

Yeah, that’s him.

We need to make issues relevant

Despite Attenborough’s best efforts, our focus group participants’ climate scepticism had not been shaken in the slightest. They remained as unperturbed as Emperor penguins in a blizzard.

I suspect this is because the world of climate impacts that we encounter in Attenborough’s BBC documentaries is often very distant. Similarly, as the research made clear, the language used by climate communicators to describe the effects of climate change, as well as the steps we need to take to avoid catastrophe, simply isn’t connecting. 

“I’ve got far more important things to worry about than climate change,” said one of our focus group participants. “We don’t really have big problems, and it doesn’t affect me or anyone else here.”

But this points the way forward: a powerful way to reach people is to contextualise climate change so it is relevant to our lived, local experience. This applies not just to its increasingly personal impacts - I’m thinking of friends in New Zealand standing knee-deep in flooded bedrooms in the aftermath of Cyclone Gabrielle - but also the far-reaching benefits of climate action. In fact, don’t mention the c-word at all. Because this action, as sustainability journalist Dave Vetter recently tweeted, “will deliver quality of life improvements in just about every measurable category for all people.” It will supercharge local economies, reinvigorating dying high streets as well as our landscapes. It will create employment (not ‘green jobs’; just ‘jobs’), and it will make us healthier and happier. And it might just help save the world.

Key study findings

  1. Confusion: Well over half of the population (56%) couldn’t confidently explain what net zero actually is. Many found messaging around the climate change to be ambiguous, inaccessible and steeped in scientific jargon
  2. Stress: Over half of consumers (52%) feel powerless in the fight against climate change and a worrying 38% say the climate crisis negatively impacts their mood and mental health. Many cited the prevailing doom and gloom narrative as a reason for feeling disengaged Trust issues; A focus group discussion brought to light huge amounts of distrust - of the mainstream media, of politicians and of what they perceived to be the climate change lobby as a whole. 
  3. Lack of connection to lived experience: “I've got far more important things to worry about than climate change. Far more important in my lifetime” said one participant, whose business was being crippled by rising energy costs. 


Methodology

Firstlight group held a focus group ran by Vitreous World in October 2022. The group consisted of six people, all of whom were identified as climate deniers or delayers via screening questions around climate change. The individuals ranged from 47 to 71 years of age and were based all around the UK. Names have been changed in this report for privacy. 

These insights are supplemented with data from a nationally representative survey of 2,000 UK adults undertaken by Opinium in November 2022. .

Written by Neil Young, associate director, digital at firstlight group

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