Can voters be made to care about climate change?

The UK public are concerned about the issue – but not enough for politicians to take action, writes David Burrows.

As climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries descended on Bonn in May to flesh out the Paris Agreement, all eyes were on one man. That the US president, Donald Trump, once promised to “cancel” the global pact is a threat to efforts to curb carbon emissions, but there are no signs (yet) that climate scepticism has entered mainstream thinking. That doesn’t mean climate-friendly policies are likely to be seen as vote-winners as the UK heads to the polls in June.

Seventy-one percent of UK consumers are concerned about climate change, according to the latest survey of public attitudes published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in May. In July 2012 the figure from the same survey was 65%.

The good news is that thinking is headed in the right direction. The bad comes when considering the extent of concern. In July 2012, 2% said climate change was the top challenge facing the country. Come April 2013, this had risen to 5% and a year later it stood at 8%. Since then it has fallen back to 5%.

Looking at those who list climate change in the “top three challenges” facing the UK, the picture does improve. In the latest survey, 21% put it in their top three, which is more than for energy supply (14%) and levels of taxation (13%). However, it’s still far behind other “closer to home” issues such as the health service (74%), unemployment (39%) and education (34%).

Brits are also less concerned about global warming than other countries. A YouGov poll conducted in 17 countries and published in January 2016 showed that climate change has a 10.8% share of concern, two points below the global average and, perhaps more worryingly, above only the US (9.2%) and Saudi Arabia (5.7%).

Consider the figures above and it’s easy to see why the Conservative government has been able to rip up some of its renewable energy policies and put off any regulatory action in areas such as sustainable diets and food waste. And it’s not just carbon where the promises have been broken.

As the Labour manifesto puts it: “Our air is killing us, our farms face an uncertain future, our fish stocks are collapsing, our oceans are used as dumping grounds, and our forests, green belt, national parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest are all under threat.”

The public care about all those things, but not enough for politicians to take action. Could focusing on the links between food and climate change be a way to convince them?

Research published by the Global Food Security Programme in February showed that the least commonly listed potential effects of climate change are agricultural: just 45% of those who agree that climate change is happening think it will change where foods are grown in the next 50 years.

But the Committee on Climate Change has already warned that the UK’s food system won’t be able to cope with changing climates: urgent policy intervention is required now in order to mitigate the risks to food security and limit potential spikes in food prices, the experts said earlier this year.

The government has ignored the advice – “our food systems have coped in the past and they’ll cope in the future” just about summarises DEFRA’s response to the CCC’s report. The Food Ethics Council likened this stance to playing Russian roulette with climate change. But it’s a fair bet that little will change until the opinion polls do.

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