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November 2018
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'I'm becoming desensitised to climate change'

The majority of the public believe that climate change is a reality. But the most recent surveys show a decline in concern since 2005. Sarah Castell argues that new techniques may be needed to change behaviours and engage the public.

“I think if they want us to save energy to save the world then it should be installed free.”

“Eventually the Government has got to say – we think this is the best way forward. We as individuals can’t make that decision.”

A recent report from Sciencewise-ERC (What the public say about designing climate change and low carbon interventions) synthesises messages drawn from thirteen studies carried out from 2007-10. These studies canvassed views on climate change and on low carbon incentives and included surveys, focus groups and public dialogues, plus discourse analyses.

What is the problem?

The vast majority of the public believe that climate change is a reality, and are concerned about it. However, the most recent surveys suggest that people are taking the issue less seriously than they used to. Ipsos MORI reported in 2008 that 88% believed the climate is changing, falling to just under three-quarters (73%) in 2009 and dropping to 60% in 2010. Researchers from Cardiff University also noted decline in belief in climate change in their 2010 survey – 71% concerned, down from 82% concerned in 2005.

Why might this be? In qualitative research, the public seem unsure what causes climate change and what can be done to stop it. They suspect that the low carbon agenda might just be an excuse for expensive products or high taxes. And they are complacent about what they need to do personally. While they say they have changed their behaviour, few are saving energy consistently.

The authors of these studies speculate that the public have heard too many ‘doom and gloom’ messages about the risks and impacts of climate change, without hearing a positive ‘call to action’ alongside. Is this why they are losing interest?

Who should solve it?

The public want the Government to lead the way. Consumers are not keen to bear the financial burden of switching. They argue it benefits society as a whole, rather than themselves, so they shouldn’t have to pay. Before taking action, they want to hear what changes will be required from business and how Government is going to change its own behaviour too.

You talk to me about saving energy in my own house – drive up the A40 and see all these offices at five o’clock in the morning with all their lights on -you’ve got all these offices with their lights on and they’re talking about saving electricity.

But there is potential to get the public engaged – by designing low carbon solutions which meet consumer needs. The authors of these reports recommend segmenting the public, and targeting interventions carefully at segments. The reports identify some overarching needs likely to be relevant to many different groups:

  • Save money now and reduce upfront costs
  • People see new technologies as expensive, risky and complicated. They want upfront financial help.

  • Give the homeowner control of energy use
  • For example, energy meters tend to be liked, as they help people take some control over their energy use. The self-sufficiency of micro-generation, in principle, appeals. Both allow consumers to feel empowered in their dealings with energy companies.

  • Show new products working in practice.
  • Examples and demos are reassuring.

  • New technologies should fit with the aesthetics of the home, and meet the need for status
  • Like double glazing, the most successful insulation technology so far, new technologies will need to look impressive and add to the value of the house.

  • Positive, congratulatory, light hearted communications
  • Consumers do not want to hear ‘worthy’ messages of personal sacrifice. New products and communications should be marketed in a way which promotes intrigue, not guilt. “Dare I say, there’s still got to be a slight entertainment element for us to pay attention”.

    What next?

    Individual consumers see the barriers – upfront costs, and risks – more clearly than they see the benefits of low carbon lifestyles. They would like Government to bear the risk of change.

    It may be that shifts towards purchasing low carbon home energy products are occurring already, as incentives such as the Feed-In Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive are communicated. But the overriding impression from these studies is that the public are waiting – for well designed products and services, for inspiration and for a catalyst.

    These might include local and national Government incentives; incentives from suppliers; clever and innovative design of aesthetically appealing products; and careful targeting of communication at the right segments of the population. The next step is to create these ideas and bring them to the public.

    Read the full report, and others like it at , www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk

    0870 190 6324.

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