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Report reveals public attitudes to climate change

29 January 2015

Flooded road with Flood triangle warning sign

The results of a new study led by the University, published a year on from the major winter flooding, show that the British public's belief in the reality of climate change and its human causes rose significantly last year - and is now at its highest since 2005.

The research team also found that many see climate change as contributing at least in part to the winter flooding events.

In December 2013 and January 2014, an exceptional run of winter storms hit the UK, leading to widespread flooding. Although it is very difficult to attribute any single set of weather events to climate change, such extremes of weather are predicted to be more frequent and severe in the UK under a changed climate.

A collaborative research team from Cardiff and the University of Nottingham set out to understand in detail how the British public had responded to the flooding last winter. To do this they surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,002 respondents from across Britain, together with a further group of 995 people drawn from five areas of England and Wales that had been affected by the flooding last winter.

The study found that:

  • More people are prepared to accept the reality of climate change
    • Close to 9 in 10 people (88%) agree that the world's climate is changing, a figure that is up on polling in previous years and close to the highest figure of 91% last found in 2005. Only 6% did not agree that the climate is changing.
    • 76% of respondents stated that they had personally noticed signs of climate change during their lifetime, with 39% mentioning changing weather patterns or extreme weather; 27% mentioning heavy rainfall, floods, or rising river levels; and 20% changes to the seasons.
  • The flooding events were seen as a sign of things to come
    • Various factors were felt to have contributed a 'fair amount' or a 'great deal' to the flooding and its impacts including: insufficient investment in flood defences (77% felt this), poor river and coastal management (75%), development including in flood-prone areas (73%), and climate change (61%).
    • A clear majority of the national sample (72%) agreed with the statement "The floods showed us what we can expect in the future from climate change", while only 10% of the public expressed disagreement with this.
  • Flood affected people were even more certain about climate change
    • The research team analysed the responses of a group of 135 individuals from the flood affected areas, all of whom had had their property directly affected by flood waters last year. This group were even more convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change.
    • Not surprisingly, these directly affected people reported experiencing anxiety, anger, and distress, while the public more generally experienced high levels of sympathy with them.
    • The issue of climate change was far more salient and immediate on a series of different measures amongst the most directly affected group. For example, they were more than twice as likely (29% mentioned it) than the national sample (where only 15% mentioned it) to spontaneously name climate change as one of the three most important issues facing the UK in the next 20 years.

Professor Nick Pidgeon from the School of Psychology, who led the team which carried out the research, said:

"Our findings demonstrate that an association between last year's winter flooding and climate change has been forming in the minds of many ordinary people in Britain, who also view these events as a sign of things to come.

"Perhaps we should now ask whether it is time to banish climate scepticism once and for all, and for scientists to be more decisive in demonstrating how our weather will become more extreme in the future if we do not act on climate change."

Regarding support for political action, around three-quarters (74%) of people surveyed in the national sample supported the UK signing up to international agreements to limit carbon emissions, with only 7% opposing this measure. Professor Pidgeon added: "This finding above all sends a clear signal to the UK government as it begins to prepare for the pivotal international climate talks to be held in Paris later this year."

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with additional support from the Climate Change Consortium of Wales and the Cardiff University Institute of Sustainable Places. It was carried out by researchers at Cardiff University's School of Psychology, and at The University of Nottingham's School of Psychology, with fieldwork undertaken by Ipsos MORI.