SENSibility 6: BBC poll on climate change

Is climate change mitigation gaining traction in the minds of people around the world? Maybe it is. According to a BBC poll, a majority of people around the world agreed that personal sacrifices will be necessary to address climate change. The BBC polled 21,000 people in 21 countries, and found that four out of five people surveyed agreed that changes in lifestyle and behaviour will be required to reduce carbon emissions. In Canada, 91 percent of respondents agreed that individuals will “definitely” or “probably” need to change their lifestyle and behaviour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (79 percent of Americans agreed). Majorities in most countries also agreed that the cost of energy will have to increase so individuals and industry would use less. Majorities also supported higher fuel taxes. This is all very encouraging, as far as it goes.

As is the case with all such polls, important qualifications abound. While it is true that most people surveyed agreed that individuals would “definitely” or “probably” have to change their lifestyle and behaviour to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in 12 of the 21 countries fewer people responded with a “definitely” (instead choosing “probably”) and this suggests that much of the support is rather lukewarm. The question was also rather descriptive, asking “Will individuals need to change lifestyle and behaviour to reduce the amount of climate change gases produced?” I wonder if different results would have been obtained if the question read: “Are you willing to change your lifestyle and behaviour to reduce the amount of climate change gases you produce?” and then provided a list of possible measures like taking the bus to work or not buying a new large screen TV. And there was much less consensus on increased taxes on fossil fuels. Worldwide, only 50 percent of respondents were in favour of such taxes. However, three quarters of the people surveyed worldwide said they would support energy taxes if the money raised was used to develop alternative forms of energy or increase energy efficiency. In addition, large majorities in favour of fuel taxes also materialized if other taxes were reduced to compensate. So the poll ended on an upbeat note.

The spin being put on these results is that the publics of the world are ahead of governments when it comes to responding to climate change. I agree that these are encouraging results, and seem to support a growing social consensus on climate change and the need for mitigation measures. However, the rubber meets the road (OK, bad analogy) when people are asked to make tangible sacrifices such as actually paying more for gas (remember the stink over gas prices in Vancouver last summer?) or when they are given a chance to vote for a politician who supports tax increases. So there is a need for caution when interpreting these results and anticipating actual changes in behaviour. Nevertheless, this is good news for those worried about social inertia in the face of climate change. People are learning, and they are recognizing the need for action. The next step is the translate that into concrete policy at the governmental level, where some industries still lobby against climate change mitigation measures and where politicians still fear electoral defeat if they champion higher fuel taxes.

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