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Making sense of UK polarisation on climate change

20 October 2023

The UK has (so far) avoided the sort of stark polarisation seen in nations like the US and Australia. But the country has its own particular story to tell on polarisation and climate change.

The world-leading Climate Change Act was passed with near universal political consensus in 2008. Famously, in campaigning ahead of the 2010 election, David Cameron posed for photos with a husky in the North Pole and was confident enough in the political appeal of climate change to promise he would lead the “greenest government ever”.

Once elected, though – and facing pressure from the right of the party on a range of issues including what would become Brexit – there was a sharp pivot in government rhetoric: in response to concerns about household bills and burdensome regulations, Cameron promised to “cut the green crap”. The long-running Ipsos MORI tracker poll of concern about climate change shows concern levels declining following the failure of the much-hyped Copenhagen UN summit in 2009, and reaching their lowest ever level during 2013.

This period was characterised more by an absence of public and political debate than by active polarisation, described in a report by Climate Outreach as “climate silence”. But there were also active efforts to prevent political polarisation from taking root, as it had done in other English-speaking countries, including the creation of the Conservative Environment Network and research on how to better engage centre-right audiences.

Analysis by Carbon Brief found that, between 2011 and 2016, editorial articles in publications such as The Sun, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail generally opposed action to tackle climate change, citing “unreliable” science and “expensive” environmental policies. By the end of that decade, however, those newspapers had ‘changed their minds’. By this point the outgoing Prime Minister, Theresa May, had made achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 part of the Conservative Party offer on the environment.

By 2021, following the publication of the Britain Talks Climate resource (showing how to engage across the whole of British society) and ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, there was a firm sense of political consensus around climate policies. But even during this period, differences between Conservative and Labour voters persisted. A YouGov tracker of the degree to which people think the threat of climate change is exaggerated showed up to 40% agreement among Conservative voters, but rarely more than 15% among Labour voters.

An unexpected by-election win for the Conservatives in the summer of 2023, widely interpreted as a protest vote against the expansion of the London Ultra Low Emission Zone, sparked a chain reaction culminating in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing delays to some net zero targets. Perhaps as importantly, this marked a significant shift in the rhetoric around net zero, and the most recent Carbon Brief analysis of editorials (covering 2023) identified another uptick in anti-green commentary.


The latest from the Polarisation timeline:

Opinion Insight 21st February 2024

Redfield & Wilton polling: Labour & Conservative voters think climate change not being taken seriously enough

In the past 6 months, both the Conservatives and Labour have reduced their green policy ambitions. First, the Conservatives announced delays to some near-term net zero targets. more recently, Labour said it would no longer be investing £28 billion per year into green projects. Across this period, polls have indicated that voters expect leadership from politicians on climate change, and want more (rather than less) action on climate.

New polling from Redfield & Wilton (in the wake of these announcements) asked voters for the two main parties to select between a number of competing statements, across a range of topics.

Conservative voters are more likely to believe that the threat of climate change is not being taken seriously (66%) than they are to believe that the threat of climate change to the UK has been overstated (34%). For Labour voters, a full 77% believe climate change is not being taken seriously enough, with only 23% seeing the risk to the UK as overstated.

  • Author: Redfield & Wilton
  • Date: 13th February 2024
Media Insight 16th January 2024

Report finds a rise in ‘new denial’ narratives on Youtube and a third of UK teenagers agreeing that climate change is exaggerated

Using an AI-supported analysis of climate change content on Youtube (going back to 2018), a report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate makes a distinction between ‘old denial’ narratives (e.g. that global temperatures aren’t increasing), and ‘new denial’ narratives (e.g. that rising global temperatures can in fact be beneficial).  Whilst ‘old denial’ narratives are now less common, ‘new denial’ narratives have increased and now constitute 70% of climate denial content on Youtube in 2023.

Strikingly, in a nationally representative survey of young people in the UK, 31% of respondents aged 13-17 agreed that ‘Climate change and its effects are being purposefully over-exaggerated’, rising to 37% among teenagers who were heavy users of social media.

This stands in contrast with Climate Barometer tracker data, where the claim that climate change is exaggerated was unpopular among young people aged 18-24 (a slightly older age group), perhaps indicating a pivot between earlier and later teenage years on susceptibility to this form of ‘new denial’ narrative. Alternatively, it may be a cohort effect that hasn’t been obvious because the majority of polling focuses on those aged 18 and over.

Content which is critical of clean energy solutions, seeking to discredit them or draw attention to the financial costs of green policies, was included in the ‘new denial’ category. An analysis of newspaper editorials in 2023 by Carbon Brief found a record number of UK newspaper editorials opposing climate action (almost exclusively from right-leaning titles) utilising very similar arguments.

  • Source: Center for Countering Digital Hate | CCDH
  • Date: 16th January 2024
Media Insight 16th January 2024

Carbon Brief analysis shows record opposition to climate action by right-leaning UK newspapers in 2023

An analysis by the website Carbon Brief has found a record number of editorials in UK newspapers (almost exclusively right-leaning publications) that oppose climate action. Carbon Brief writes:

Newspapers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail published 42 editorials in 2023 arguing against climate action – nearly three times more than they have printed before in a single year. They called for delays to UK bans on the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars and boilers, as well as for more oil-and-gas production in the North Sea. In response to such demands, prime minister Rishi Sunak performed a “U-turn” in September on some of his government’s major net-zero policies.

Climate Barometer tracker data suggests a correspondence (cause and effect is harder to establish) between the views of Conservative MPs on net zero policies, and the views expressed in these editorials. But among the public there is not such a clear relationship, with even Conservative voters ambivalent on whether delays to net zero targets are in touch, or out of touch with public sentiment:

Opposition to climate policies is not only found in right-leaning editorials, however. An analysis by the the Centre for Countering Digital Hate found a surge in what they call ‘new denial’ narratives on Youtube in 2023. These include attempts to discredit green energy technologies, or exaggerate their cost – positions that mirror the editorial content analysed by Carbon Brief.

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