UK public concern over climate crisis at all time high

As the COP26 summit gets underway in Glasgow, research suggests the public want urgent action from government to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees

Increased natural disasters stem from climate change

Pulic concern over the climate crisis has reached record levels in the UK, according to the latest analysis of public attitudes from leading experts on the society-wide changes needed to tackle the issue. The findings from the Cardiff University-led Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) come at the start of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Pictured above: forest fires destroyed vast areas of Greece this year

CAST's first poll of more than 1,000 UK adults found concerns over climate change were at an all-time high in the UK, with 45 per cent of respondents now reporting they are 'very or extremely worried'. This is an increase from 39 per cent in 2020 and 25 per cent in 2016. More than half agree 'drastic action' needs to be taken to tackle the climate emergency, with government action and individual behaviour change seen as the most important steps towards effective climate action. Technological solutions, winding down businesses and climate protest are ranked of less importance.

CAST researchers say the results are the starkest indication yet that people recognise the need for urgent action to change our current way of life. 'Public concern over climate change and its implications has been consistently on the rise in the UK over the last few years – and this most up-to-date insight into citizens’ views delivers a very clear message at a pivotal moment for the climate emergency,' says Dr Katharine Steentjes, a co-investigator at CAST.

'We hope world leaders meeting in Glasgow this week will sit up and listen to this message that now is the time to take meaningful and concerted action on the climate crisis.'

CAST also polled more than 4,000 adults across four countries – the UK, China, Sweden and Brazil – and found similar patterns of public opinion:

Many people in the UK, China and Sweden are very or extremely worried about climate change (40-50 per cent) and want to see urgent action (55-58 per cent). In Brazil - led by climate change sceptic Jair Bolsonaro - climate change worry and feelings of urgency are higher (75 per worry, 85 per cent want high urgency on climate measures).
Most people (70 per cent UK, 66 per cent Sweden, 74 per cent China, 84 per cent Brazil) agree that tackling climate change requires drastic changes to our current way of living and how we operate as a society. Walking, cycling and using public transport are seen as the most effective way to tackle climate change in all four countries. People are less aware of strategies such as eating less red meat and reducing new purchases, especially in China;

Across all four countries, there is majority (69 per cent UK, 66 per cent Sweden, 76 per cent China, 67 per cent Brazil) support for the international Paris Agreement  to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius;

Government, businesses and industry are seen as the most responsible actors to initiate climate action, but most people also feel a personal responsibility to act. (Though as environmentalist George Monbiot points out, getting people to ditch cotton buds and rinse plates before putting them in the dishwasher is not going to make any even faintly meaningful impact on our heating world.) 

Dr Steentjes says as world leaders start to discuss how they want to fulfil the international commitment to avoid the worst of the climate crisis, it's important to understand what people think needs to happen – and what they expect from their respective governments.

'Our results demonstrate not only that people around the world are worried about climate change and that they feel the impacts, but they also recognise the need for urgent action from themselves and their governments that will have to change our current way of life.

'Policymakers should note that citizens expect their governments to take responsibility and start to make changes towards effective climate action, but a large proportion of people also feel a personal responsibility to act themselves.

'Both government action and behaviour change is needed – and will reassure decision-makers that many people are willing to enter discussions around how citizens and governments together can solve the challenge that the climate crisis poses to all of us. This is important to note for governments that are concerned about citizens’ willingness to consider changes to their current way of living.'

The CAST hub is based at Cardiff University and carries out research into the systemic and societal transformations needed to address climate crisis. Partners include East Anglia, Manchester, York and Bath universities, and the charity Climate Outreach. CAST researchers, including Dr Steentjes, will kick off the programme of public events at COP26 today with a discussion on Catalysing our Net Zero Future: Working with people to take action on climate change.