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Attitudes to climate change -

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Robyn Williams: As Copenhagen looms in December with decisions about carbon, how is opinion
changing now that reality is biting? Lorraine Whitmarsh lectures in environmental psychology at the
University of Cardiff.

Lorraine Whitmarsh: I think what's clear is that the science is becoming more and more certain, but
in terms of the social science we still need to understand what people think about climate change
and how they're responding to it. So this is really the research I've been focusing on.

Robyn Williams: Because presumably if changes are going to be drastic you need a constituency
otherwise you can't implement them from a governmental point of view.

Lorraine Whitmarsh: That's right, yes. I think government obviously needs the support of the public
in order to enact polices to respond to climate change. So in a democratic society we need to
understand what the public wants, what they feel, what they think, and also the barriers that they
perceive to changing their lifestyles, because the government is encouraging us to change our
lifestyles but for a lot of people they perceive it to be very difficult, and in some cases it
really is very difficult.

Robyn Williams: So what did you find, in general?

Lorraine Whitmarsh: We conducted a survey towards the end of 2008, this is funded by the Tyndall
Centre for Climate Change Research. It was a follow-up survey from a survey we did five years
before. So we tracked attitudes to climate change over that five-year period, and what we find is
that scepticism certainly hasn't decreased over that time. We still see around 20% of the public
are very doubtful about whether climate change exists and indeed about whether human activities
have any impact on climate. But we also see a much higher proportion and an increasing proportion
sceptical about a lot of the claims made in the media and in general within society about climate
change, what its impacts will be and so on. So I think scepticism (and this was a surprising
finding) does seem to be slightly increasing over time.

Robyn Williams: And people think it's possibly less drastic a consequence, climate change, than
they thought before.

Lorraine Whitmarsh: I think to some extent that may be the case. I think there is a tendency within
the media to focus on some of the more extreme scenarios that climate change may bring, and I think
the public perceive that that is rather alarmist and are, perhaps rightly, sceptical about some of
the things that are said in the media about climate change, yes.

Robyn Williams: Nonetheless it's a minority, you're saying, who are sceptical.

Lorraine Whitmarsh: Yes. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the public within the
UK but also internationally do now accept that human activities have an impact on climate. Figures
vary but it's somewhere between about 10% to 20% or so who are kind of hardened sceptics that
really reject the idea of climate change or human activities having an impact on climate.

Robyn Williams: Your survey was British based, but how do your figures compare with other

Lorraine Whitmarsh: In general they're fairly consistent, but in actual fact what we see is that
the UK is somewhat more sceptical than other European countries but still not quite as sceptical as
the US.

Robyn Williams: I see. What are the figures in the US, do you know?

Lorraine Whitmarsh: It fluctuates, but certainly a study a few years ago showed that they were
several percentage points more sceptical than in the UK.

Robyn Williams: What do you think is shifting people's attitude? Is it the flood of information
that's coming out, because I know from doing reports from the journals that especially, for
example, more recently work on the sea, on coral reefs and so on, is really dire and is on the
front pages of our newspapers. Is that the sort of thing that seems to be impacting, or are
people's attitudes being dulled by the sheer weight of the material?

Lorraine Whitmarsh: I think it's a combination of things. I think, yes, that it's partly the fact
that the news is so bad but it's also the fact that the media in general tends to focus on the more
extreme scenarios and the worst news. So for a lot of people, they do tend to switch off I think.
Once the message is repeated over and over again and it's such an unpleasant message and a fearful
message, people do tend to question it or ignore it.

The other thing is that the impacts and the implications of climate change for people's lifestyles
are rather uncomfortable, so they are I think inclined in some cases to latch onto that bit of
uncertainty that remains within climate science to say, actually, maybe we don't need to do
anything about our energy use and so on, perhaps we can carry on the way we are. So there may be a
tendency, because it's an uncomfortable truth, to focus on what's still uncertain in climate

Robyn Williams: An 'inconvenient truth' perhaps! Finally, that was 2008, so how are you following
this up?

Lorraine Whitmarsh: There's going to be a number of studies that we'll be conducting. Actually
Cardiff University will be conducting a major UK survey in the next few months. There's certainly
work ongoing that we'll follow up.

Robyn Williams: Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh at Cardiff University in Wales, and it will be interesting to
see what effect Copenhagen in December will have on those figures, and whether good news on
remedial technologies makes us think more positively about changes in store.


Lorraine Whitmarsh

Lecturer in Environmental Psychology Cardiff University Cardiff Wales


Robyn Williams


David Fisher

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