Public hugely underestimate scientific consensus on climate change

King’s College London

99.9% of climate scientists have concluded human-caused climate change is happening

climate action sign at protest

PERITIA: Public perceptions on climate change

Read the research

The public in both the UK and other European nations are hugely underestimating the extent of the scientific consensus on climate change, according to a new study.

The UK public’s average estimate is that 65% of climate scientists have concluded human-caused climate change is happening – far lower than the reality of 99.9%, as revealed in previous academic research.1

Carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London as part of a European Commission project investigating public trust in expertise, this latest study is based on survey data from over 12,000 people across six countries.

The other nations surveyed fare little better than the UK at recognising the true level of scientific agreement on climate change, with Ireland – which comes closest to the correct answer – only marginally more accurate, with an average estimate of 71%.

The research also reveals that, while people are much more likely than not to accept certain realities of climate change, notable minorities are still failing to do so, with those in Norway – one of the world’s top oil and gas producing nations – least likely to recognise some well-established facts:

  • One in six (17%) UK adults say it’s false that climate change is mainly caused by human activities – but seven in 10 (72%) believe it’s true.

    Germany (72% true vs 18% false) has virtually the same views as the UK, while Norway ranks below both, with six in 10 (61%) believing climate change is largely caused by humans and a quarter (24%) thinking this is untrue.

  • One in eight (13%) people in the UK say they don’t believe that the last century’s global increase in temperature was the largest during the past 1,000 years, 2 compared with two-thirds (64%) who correctly recognise this is true.

    Views in the UK are in line with the six-country average (64% true vs 13% false) – but Norway is again least likely to accept this reality, with around half (49%) saying it’s true that the global increase in temperature of the last century was the biggest for 1,000 years and one in five (18%) thinking this is false.

And the study finds relatively large proportions of the public believe innovations that could help combat human-caused climate change are being concealed:

  • In the UK, 44% think it’s true that oil companies are hiding technology that could make cars run without petrol or diesel, while 33% say they don’t know the truth and 23% believe this is false – almost identical to the average across the six nations surveyed. People in Italy (53%) are most likely to believe this claim, while those in Norway (29%) are least likely to.

A quarter of the UK public say climate change is already harming them personally

Looking at people’s predictions for when they’ll be impacted by climate change, one in four (25%) in the UK say they are already being harmed personally, while another one in four (25%) predict they will be in the next 10 years. One in eight (13%) think climate change will never cause them personal harm.

People in Poland (41%) are most likely to say climate change is already harming them personally, while those in Norway (16%) are least likely.

And 27% in Norway say climate change is causing their country harm right now – the lowest among the nations surveyed – followed by the UK, where 39% feel this is the case. Italy has the highest proportion of people who think their country is being damaged by climate change, with 54% holding this view.

In line with these findings, people in Norway are least concerned about the impacts of climate change across a range of measures. For example, 63% report being worried about such impacts for their country, compared with 75% in the UK and 74% in Germany, where concern is next lowest. In Italy, 85% say they are worried about this – the highest of the nations polled.

The six countries included in the study – the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Norway and Poland – were selected to reflect a range of different contexts across factors such as location within Europe, population size, GDP levels, political structure and levels of trust in institutions, as measured in other studies.

The findings from this research were produced as part of PERITIA – Policy, Expertise and Trust – an EU-funded project that aims to help citizens and policymakers understand trust in science and identify trustworthy expertise.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“One in six Brits still think it’s false that the climate change we’re experiencing is mainly caused by human activity – which is a real concern, as it may affect support for action. It also reflects a misperception of just how strong the consensus is among climate scientists, where, on average, we guess that only two-thirds of scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening, when the reality is over 99%. These sorts of findings show how careful we need to be in giving credence and airtime to very niche contrarian climate science views.

“But we also need to bear in mind that our misperceptions of realities can be driven by our underlying attitudes and values – because we tend to look for evidence that fits our already held views. This means that simply telling people they’re wrong may not shift opinions and beliefs very much, and we need to engage people in a range of different ways.

“One of the most powerful drivers of concern and support for action is actually seeing the effects of climate change, and this is certainly starting to happen across many countries. For example, four in 10 Brits say climate change is harming the country, and three-quarters are concerned about its impact.”

Sources

  1. Source for claim: Lynas, M et al (2021) “Greater than 99% consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature,” Environmental Research Letters 16(11): 1–7. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac2966
  2. Source for claim: Smith, S., Edmonds, J., Hartin, C. et al. (2015) “Near-term acceleration in the rate of temperature change,” Nature Climate Change, 5, 333–336. https://www.nature.com/articles/nclimate2552

Survey details

This survey was conducted drawing on the proprietary online panel of Savanta in the UK and similar panels in their network in the other countries. Quotas were set to ensure sufficient responses within each country in terms of age, gender, region, education, and income. Once data collection was complete, weights were applied to observations to create a sample reflective of the population in age, gender, region, education, and income. Sample sizes were: 2,017 in Germany; 2,030 in Ireland; 2,044 in Italy; 2,045 in Norway; 2,168 in Poland; and 2,042 in the UK. Data were collected directly from respondents via a self-completed online survey. Fieldwork dates ranged from 4–19 January 2022.

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