A tipping point in attitudes to climate change?

Posted by TEBI on September 17, 2019


2019 will doubtless go down in history as the year that Britain became obsessed with Brexit. Just now, there seems to be no escaping it. But is the media’s fixation on relations with Europe obscuring the fact that Britons are becoming increasingly concerned with a potentially far bigger issue? 

A survey in July by ComRes, commissioned by Christian Aid, found that 71% of the UK public think that, in the long term, climate change will be more important than exiting the EU. Six out of 10 adults said the government was not doing enough to tackle it.

In fact, several polls in the last year or so have suggested that attitudes to climate change are shifting. An Ipsos MORI survey for the Evening Standard, published in August, for example, showed that 85 per cent of adults are now concerned about global warming. That’s the highest figure since the pollster started asking the question in 2005.


The impact of news coverage

What has caused this shift in attitudes to climate change? Well, global warming has certainly featured prominently in the news. We’ve seen heavily publicised demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion in London; 16-year-old Greta Thunberg hit the headlines when she sailed to New York on a zero-carbon yacht to New York to address world leaders at a climate change summit; and the hottest July ever around the globe reinforced concerns that the effects of global warming are starting to escalate. 

In truth, however, opinions were changing before any of those news stories broke. Responding to a survey commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and published in March this year, 80% of the public said they were either fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) about climate change. The overall proportion of the population concerned about the issue was the highest since the study started in 2012.


It’s not just women and young people

Another interesting takeaway from these surveys is that old stereotypes appear to be breaking down. For example, a long-held view is that those most concerned about environmental issues tend to be either young or female. It’s still true that marginally more women express concern about global warming than men, but according to both the Ipsos MORI and BEIS polls, the gender gap is narrowing. Both studies also showed that levels of concern with climate change do not differ greatly by age.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that the views of younger and older people are less polarised now than they were, as the older generation dies off. But academics have been pointing out for several years now that older people are actually more interested in environmental issues than is often assumed.

In 2013, for example, a study called Age and environmental sustainability: a meta-analysis collated the results of multiple studies between 1970 and 2010, in order to “determine the magnitudes of relationships between age and environmental variables”. The researchers found that “most relationships were negligibly small”. They also concluded that “small but generalisable relationships indicated that older individuals appear to be more likely to engage with nature, avoid environmental harm, and conserve raw materials and natural resources”.


Walking the walk

That last finding is particularly significant. After all, it’s one thing to be concerned about the environment and quite another to do something about it. Studies have shown that, very often, people who claim to have green credentials fail to match their words with action.

Another area in which older people are more likely to act in an environmentally sustainable way is in investing. Around the world, it’s generally the over-55s who are contributing the most to the sustainable investing market. Triodos Bank predicts they will continue to do so in the UK in every year until 2027.



In short, all the evidence appears to be pointing to a shift in attitudes to climate change and a growing willingness to do something about it. Nor is it just certain sections of the population whose opinions are shifting. 2019 may just be the year that, in Britain at least, the penny finally dropped.


Sustainable Investor is a series of articles on sustainable investing, impact investing, shareholder activism and corporate governance. Here are some other recent articles you may have missed:

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