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On climate change, Britons are shaky on facts, strong on action - study

by Megan Davies | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 5 September 2019 00:01 GMT

An airplane takes off at Gatwick Airport in Gatwick, Britain, December 21, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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From the impact of flying to how many record-breaking hot years we've had, people misjudge climate realities, researchers find

By Megan Davies

LONDON, Sept 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From the amount of plastic recyled to how record-breaking recent temperatures are, the British public's grasp of the facts about climate change remain shaky, researchers said Thursday.

In a survey looking at public misperceptions about the environment, researchers at King's College London found two-thirds of people surveyed agreed with the British Parliament that the world is facing a climate emergency.

But nearly three-quarters of people think others are not concerned enough about climate change - even though four out of five people surveyed said they are worried enough to change their lifestyles.

"We tend to inform our own actions by what we think the norm is, by what other people do," said Bobby Duffy, d​irector of the Policy Institute at King's College London, which led the survey of about 1,100 people with polling company Ipsos MORI.

"If we think that other people are less worried, we're less likely to act, even though there's such a global, universal problem," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to the study, published Thursday, people guessed that 12 of the 20 hottest years on record happened in the last 22 years, despite the World Meteorological Organization declaring that all 20 fell within that timeframe.

People also underestimated the impact of flying on climate change.

Asked to list what actions would most reduce an individual's greenhouse gas emissions, they ranked avoiding a single transatlantic flight in sixth place.

According to research from Lund University in Sweden, it actually comes third, behind living car-free and having one fewer child.

Those surveyed also overestimated the impact of recycling and how much plastic is recycled, researchers said.

Only 9% of plastic worldwide is recycled, a team of scientists noted in the journal Science Advances in 2017, but on average Britons guessed more than a quarter was recycled.

In a similar data mismatch, people surveyed thought global animal populations had fallen by a quarter since 1970, when in fact they have plunged 60%, according to WWF.

Duffy said the findings indicate helping people get "a bit more accurate knowledge" might also "galvanize people into action".

And though most respondents to the survey were off on their perceptions of the impact of things like flying and recycling, he said he was heartened they seemed concerned about climate change.

"While people were wrong about how much air travel, as an industry, contributes to global warming, it is quite good that they got the message that air travel is a major (climate change contributor), because at an individual level it actually can save a lot of greenhouse gases if you just skip a flight," Duffy said.

"It's interesting. They've come to the right conclusion, but by getting the facts very wrong," he said.

(Reporting by Megan Davies; Editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

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