Study shows widespread misconceptions about energy and climate change

A new survey reveals important misconceptions on energy and climate change among the UK public. The ComRes poll was commissioned by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), a new non-profit initiative with a high-level Advisory Board including MPs, Peers and leading academics, aiming to support informed debate on energy and climate issues in the UK. 

It shows that only one in nine (11 percent) of people are aware of the strength of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, a finding that the ECIU said carries ‘uncomfortable echoes’ of the MMR controversy of 15 years ago.

Nearly half of the UK population (47 percent) think either that most climate scientists reject the idea that human activities such as fossil fuel burning are the main driver of climate change (11 percent), or that scientists are evenly split on the issue (35 percent). Several recent studies [ Cook et alTolVerheggen et al] show that more than 90% of climate scientists agree that the main cause of climate change is human activity.

Another major misunderstanding relates to the British public’s preferences for different forms of energy. Only one in twenty (5 percent) of Britons know that renewables such as solar and wind are supported by a significant majority (about 80 percent) of the UK population. Two-thirds (63 percent) estimate support at under 50 percent.

Richard Black, director of the ECIU, said: “This survey shows that there’s a huge gap between reality and perception on some key climate and energy issues. These are important findings given that the UK has crucial decisions to make on our response to climate change and our energy system in the next few years.

“As a nation we can only make sensible choices if we’re properly informed, so it’s vital that people are aware of what the evidence is and that it’s communicated clearly.

“The breakdown between the views of scientists and the public on climate change is a particular concern. This feels reminiscent of the situation around MMR where most Britons thought the medical profession was split on the safety of the vaccine whereas doctors were virtually unanimous that it was safe.”

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Science shows a consistent picture of a warming world. Image: NASA/GISS

ComRes also asked people to name the three news organisations they most trust on energy and climate issues. Studies show that people generally trust the sources that they use, and this was generally reflected here. However, more people trust the Financial Times, Independent and Channel 4 News than use them. But usage ratings were higher than trust ratings for the BBC, the Daily Mail and The Sun.

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit has been set up to support informed debate and evidence-based communication in the fields of energy and climate change. A central part of its work will be to provide clear, accessible, up-to-date and expert-reviewed briefings on key topics.

Its Advisory Board reflects the breadth of society’s interest in energy and climate issues. It includes climate scientists, energy policy experts and economists, as well as a range of other stakeholders including MPs and Peers.

ECIU Advisory Board member Lord Howard of Lympne said: “I’ve had an interest in climate change since my term as Environment Secretary in the 1990s, and I’ve also followed progress in low-carbon technologies such as nuclear power with great interest. I decided to lend ECIU my advice because I think it can have a beneficial role in improving communication in the very important areas of energy and climate change.”

ECIU Advisory Board member Lord Puttnam of Queensgate said: “I was fortunate enough to be involved in passage of the Climate Change Act in 2008 – it passed virtually without demur and with support from all parties. Since then, the evidence that climate change presents significant risks to the UK has only strengthened, a fact that’s not always reflected in the wider public conversation. People need every scrap of possible help to inform themselves of the growing body of evidence, because only then will we be in a position to make sensible social and political decisions.”

ECIU Advisory Board member Dr Emily Shuckburgh said: “The scientific evidence that man-made climate change is real and presents significant risks is incredibly robust. But that doesn't always come across to the public, as the ECIU survey shows. In my view it's vital that we bridge that gap, so that people are able to separate fact from fiction, enabling society as a whole to make informed decisions about our future."

ECIU Advisory Board member Marylyn Haines Evans said: “WI members have always taken an active interest in issues that affect women both in the UK and all over the world, and few issues are more challenging than climate change. But that’s what it is – a challenge – and we need to deal with it in the same way that women have always dealt with challenges. I’m looking forward to working with ECIU and getting people more involved in finding practical solutions to the problems before us.”

ComRes interviewed 2,021 GB adults online between 1st August and 3rd August 2014. Data were weighted to be representative of all GB adults aged 18+. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data table can be found at www.comres.co.uk. The survey is available here.