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Clear climate information can strongly affect support for action, Irish study finds

New research has investigated the public’s understanding of climate change and how it affects support for action.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 25th 2022, 1:21 PM

CLEAR AND RELIABLE information can quickly affect a person’s opinion about climate action, a new Irish study has found.

The research suggests that people who are provided with information about climate change and its causes are more likely to be in favour of actions to tackle the crisis than people who have not been informed.

Additionally, people overall tend to underestimate the benefits that high-impact actions, like eating less meat, can have for climate action, while overestimating the benefits of low-impact actions like recycling.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) is launching a new report today on public understanding of climate change and support for mitigation.

Researchers wanted to find out whether a person’s understanding of climate change is related to their willingness to support action tackling the issue.

Participants took a ten-minute quiz that was designed to measure their understanding of climate change, with a focus on the causes of impacts and how they happen.

Half of the people who took the quiz were then shown the answers to the questions, while the other half were not.

The study investigated “whether exposing people to the answers to the quiz questions altered their attitudes to climate policy and individual behaviour”.

It found that people who were shown accurate scientific information about climate change had an increased support for climate mitigation policy – specifically, for a carbon tax.

After seeing the correct answers to the quiz, the number of people who believed a carbon tax would be effective at changing behaviour increased by 25% and almost twice as many thought the carbon tax should be higher than thought it should be lower.

It also boosted people’s intentions to take high-impact individual actions like eating less meat, taking fewer flights or retrofitting their homes, though to a lesser extent than the effect on support for stronger policy.

Speaking to The Journal, head of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit Professor Pete Lunn said that the study shows “that it doesn’t take much engagement with the issue and a bit of reliable, basic science for people to really start to change their mind”.

“We’ve run an experiment where people were randomised into different groups and the group that gets the quiz answers ended up with different views from the group that doesn’t,” Lunn said.

“It really is showing that the views that people have on this issue are not intransigent,” he said.

When they engage with the science and they get some genuine information that is reliable, and in the context where they’re engaging with it, they do become more willing to change.

Misconceptions

The study found that people are aware of the effects of climate change, but that our understanding of the individual actions that can be taken to address the crisis is “substantially poorer”.

It identified that many people overestimate the benefits of low-impact actions and underestimate the benefits of high-impact ones.

Although reducing meat intake is one of the most effective ways for an individual to reduce their contribution to emissions, almost one-in-three people believe eating a plant-based diet has a low impact.

Three-quarters of people overestimate the impact of buying local food, which is “considerably less beneficial than reducing meat intake”.

Instead of looking at high-impact actions, like eating less meat, there was a tendency to focus on reducing activities that produce waste.

“While these are important, people tend to overestimate the relative impact of not littering, recycling, using reusable shopping bags and purchasing unpackaged food,” the study said.

It noted that those actions benefit the environment but have a limited impact on climate change.

Professor Lunn attributes that misunderstanding to the emphasis in recent decades that has been put on individual actions like recycling.

“From a researcher’s point of view, I think it’s completely understandable that people don’t have a clear and accurate view of what behaviours are most beneficial because the problem is incredibly complex,” he said.

For many years now, we’ve been encouraged to recycle, we’ve had a lot of talk about packaging – and all of these issues are very serious – so I think it’s understandable that the things that people are talking about for many years and are more familiar with are what they’re inclined to think are likely to have a larger impact.

“This also shows how research can be really useful for realising the biggest misconceptions that people have, the things they get and the things that they don’t get so well,” Lunn said.

“I think one of the general lessons that comes from what we’ve done is that we don’t have in Ireland a large problem of climate change denial. Almost everybody is picking out causes in our quiz that suggest they believe that climate change is human-caused,” he said.

“That isn’t the communications challenge in Ireland, even if it is in some other countries to some extent.

“The bigger challenge is to really try to get people to understand the mechanisms so they get an idea of both how policies help to challenge and take on climate change and also how our own behaviour helps to mitigate it.”

Additionally, half the population underestimate Ireland’s per person emissions compared to the rest of Europe.

Almost one in five incorrectly believed that Ireland’s per-capita emissions are among the lowest in Europe.

In fact, in 2019, Ireland had the third highest emissions per capita across the continent.

At a webinar this afternoon to launch the report, ESRI Research Officer Shane Timmons said that “the majority of people are underestimating our emissions per person versus the rest of the EU”.

“When it comes to our emissions per person versus the rest of the EU, we asked people [if they thought] are we in the highest 25%, highest 50% or lowest 25%,” Timmons said.

“We’ve less than half of people getting it right.”

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Agriculture

Another area where the study identified a gap in understanding was on the role that agriculture plays in Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, the study concluded that climate scepticism is not a substantial issue in Ireland. The majority of adults aware that humans are causing the globe to warm; that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; and that fossil fuel heat sources, petrol and diesel vehicles, and agricultural livestock are sources of emissions.

But it warned that there is “less awareness, however, that other agricultural practices, waste decomposing in landfills and hybrid vehicles emit greenhouse gases”.

“Approximately one-in-three participants did not identify agriculture as one of the main contributors of greenhouse gases in Ireland, despite it contributing more than any other sector,” the study said.

While 68.8% of people correctly believed the agriculture sector to be one of the top three contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, nearly one-third did not select it as a main contributor.

Professor Lunn said that misconception “is as common among rural people as it is among urban people”.

“Ireland has an unusually large contribution of the agricultural sector to its emissions and as a whole, people haven’t fully absorbed that, haven’t fully understood that yet,” Lunn said.

“Again, I think it kind of makes sense, because people have associated climate change with emissions and energy production and technical energy production in particular for decades now,” he said.

“It’s clear that that message has got across strongly, so in a way, I think it’s sort of inevitable that an issue that has come to light or become more prominent more recently hasn’t yet been fully absorbed.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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