The Guardian view on public attitudes to the climate crisis: burning for change
Will the heatwave change anything? As predicted, British temperature records were shattered on Tuesday with 40.3C recorded in Coningsby, Lincolnshire. While Wednesday is expected to be cooler, the European crisis continues, with wildfires raging in France, Spain and Portugal. What immediate impact these extremes have on individuals depends on factors including geography, age, health, sex and socioeconomic status. Wealthier people in the UK, as all over the world, are better protected, while poorer people (who are more likely to be black or minority ethnic) are more exposed both at work and home.
This is far from the first disruption to British weather attributed to global heating. This time last year saw flash floods. But sometimes the “heating” part of the climate emergency has felt as though it belonged elsewhere. Predictions for the UK have included more rain rather than sun. So this week’s burning heat has shocked scientists as well as the public. Will this alter how we think and behave?
The UK public (like the global public) do not need convincing that the climate is changing. Nor do people need to be persuaded that this is a threat to them, and especially (if they are older) to their children and other young people. Government data shows that three-quarters of UK adults are worried about climate change and two-thirds feel “negative” about the future of the environment. This is not a view confined to the left of politics, with polling by the Conservative Environment Network showing that three-quarters of Tory “red wall” voters are similarly concerned.
Since worried people are three times as likely to try to do something practical about climate change, such as using public transport instead of driving, this is encouraging. But could raised awareness of the risks alter dispositions in more fundamental ways – shifting political values and judgments? Data shows that around half the public think it is mainly the government’s responsibility to act on the dangers. Currently, YouGov’s tracker shows the climate behind the economy, health and defence as the fourth most important issue facing the country. The current heat crisis could lead to it climbing further up voters’ priorities. While there is no guarantee that this would lead politicians to take the much stronger action that is needed, including confronting fossil fuel interests, there is reason to hope that it might.
Most people in the UK do not yet grasp the net zero concept. Only a small minority claim to have made “a lot” of changes personally. Tellingly, the peak of concern about climate was in March 2019, the month of a 1.4-million-strong international school strike and a few weeks before the first Extinction Rebellion occupations – proof that street protests can be very effective.
Visionary leadership will be required to guide the transformation and, crucially, the green investment that are needed – not just in the UK but internationally. The ideological right, in particular, must give up the fantasy that human civilisation can grow indefinitely without environmental consequences – as the pioneering US economist Herman Daly is the latest to spell out. The energy landscape must be upended, and fossil fuels downgraded. There is no reason to think that the public in the UK, or anywhere else, are not ready for a greener future. Clearly, the dangerous heat has the potential to nudge us in a safer direction. What we need is for it to become a tipping point.