The Poverty of Opinion Polls

by | Oct 8, 2011

The Guardian has an article about a poll of Europeans [PDF], which, according to them, shows that ‘Europeans fear climate change more than financial turmoil‘.

I have little time for opinion polls. There is only one real test of opinion, and that is an individual leaving his or her home, and putting an ‘X’ in the box on a ballot paper. And I’m suspicious of opinion polls, too. It is easy to make instrumental use of the attempts to gauge public opinion they hire pollsters to carry out. Questions are too easily framed to elicit the desired answer… are you in favour of motherhood and apple pie, or letting dangerous dogs play in childrens’ playgrounds? And then there is the danger that, if the interviewee has not had to go out of his way to register his view (i.e. to the polling station) then all that opinion polls measure is a weak opinion, not a conviction or commitment to an idea, thus making weakly-held opinion appear as support for a given agenda.

Opinions about climate change and policies intended to mitigate it are even more fraught. For what it’s worth — very little — I believe ‘climate change is a very serious problem’. It’s just that I don’t believe that the expression ‘climate change is a very serious problem’ actually means very much. It’s not a problem all by itself. As often pointed out on this blog, the ‘problem’ of climate change depends more on who has to experience it than on the magnitude of the phenomenon.

Anyway, back to the Guardian’s headline. The first thing to point out is that Europeans were not polled about their ‘fear’; they were asked about what they believed were the world’s ‘most serious problems’. Second, ‘financial turmoil’ is not a global problem: many economies are not experiencing it. This Wikipedia article lists each country’s growth over the last year. Most economies are growing at fairly healthy rates. This picture puts those statistics into a global perspective. There is a difference then, between a problem with an international dimension, and a ‘global problem’.

Says the Guardian…

The Eurobarometer poll (pdf) found that the majority of the public in the European Union consider global warming to be one of the world’s most serious problems, with one-fifth saying it is the single most serious problem.

This much seems to be true. If you ask Europeans to name the world’s single biggest problem, one in 5 of them say it’s climate change, and one in 6 and a quarter say its the economic situation. But put another way, four out of five Europeans disagree with the people who say that climate change is the biggest problem in the world. The figure changes dramatically when you ask people to name four more of the biggest problems in the world. But look at the two results…

The figure on the left is what happens when you ask people to name the single biggest problem. The figure on the right shows what happens when you ask them for 3 further answers.

So, out of just eight, the interviewees are in fact to nominate half of the problems listed as ‘the most serious problem[s] facing the world as a whole’.

And look at the problems people are asked to choose from. Concern about ‘the spread of infectious diseases’ and ‘armed conflicts’, rises nearly seven-fold between asking people for one and four of the eight ‘most serious problems. ‘The proliferation of nuclear weapons’ worries six times as many people when you ask people what they believe are the most serious problems, four times. The number of people concerned by ‘the increasing global population’ seems to increase according to the number of times you ask them to nominate one of the ‘most serious problems facing the world’. Why not just ask the same question eight times, and claim that 100% of Europeans think that climate change is ‘one of the most serious problems facing the world’? Eurosceptics amongst us will remember, that this is the MO of the European Union… If you don’t get the answer you were looking for the first time, ask and ask again. If you still don’t get the answer you wanted, insult those you polled, and ignore their answers anyway. I’m talking, of course about the referenda within EU countries, which asked for assent to various treaties, to which the answers were ‘No’, ‘Non’, and ‘Nee’. When did the EU start giving such a hoot about public opinion?

There are further problems. As discussed above, polls such as this don’t really ask interviewees to volunteer their opinion; they ask him or her to chose from the pre-selected list. This may be equivalent to no more than asking them which issues they’ve heard about — a quiz, rather than a poll. Then there’s the fact that opinions, such as they are, really don’t exist in a vacuum. People form ideas about the world by existing within it, and interacting with it. So, for instance, imagine that interviewer offered an argument that may diminish the interviewee’s concern about the issue he or she selected… For instance, had ‘the economic turmoil’ issue been chosen, the interviewer said ‘do you know that only 18 countries are currently experiencing negative growth, would you like to change your selection?’. It’s unrealistic, of course, but the point is that opinions are formed by dialogue. But the biggest problem with the poll is that it forces the presupposition that there are such things as ‘the most serious problems facing the world’ that can be reduced to mere issues devoid of their context. The questions are loaded, therefore, by that familiar maxim, ‘global problems need global solutions’. After all, why else would a supranational political institution, which is most famous for failing to engage the support of its member countries’ populations, be so interested in identifying ‘global problems’? The answer is in the inversion of the maxim: global solutions need global problems.

This is further revealed by Connie Hedegaard, European climate commissioner, quoted by The Guardian,

“This is encouraging news. The survey shows that the citizens of Europe can see that economic challenges are not the only ones we face. A clear majority of Europeans expect their politicians and business leaders to address the serious climate challenge now.”

She said it was “striking” that the public were even more concerned about climate change than in the run-up to the landmark Copenhagen summit on climate change in late 2009.

Another answer might be that the public have simply grown tired of the other ‘global problem’ narratives that once dominated the media, but no longer do. Global pandemics, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, for instance, are more distant memories. In any case, Hedeegard is wrong to suggest that climate change is moving up in the public’s consciousness. Compare this year’s results to the poll conducted in 2008.

It’s more striking that people were less sceptical of climate change policies a year before the Copenhagen summit than either during the run up to it, and since it.

A final quote from the Guardian lets the political ambition cat out of the bag…

The results of the Eurobarometer poll were hailed by the European commission as evidence that the public across member states maintains its support for measures to tackle climate change. The commission is currently engaged in an argument over whether to toughen the EU’s target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2020, compared with 1990 levels, to a more stretching target of cutting emissions by 30% by the same date. The poll was conducted in June among 27,000 people from aged 15 in 27 countries.

Hedegaard wants to toughen the target but she is opposed by several other commissioners, including the energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger.

Hedegaard said on Friday: “The fact that more than three out of four Europeans see improving energy efficiency as a way to create jobs is a strong signal to Europe’s decision makers. I see this poll very much as an encouragement for us in the commission to continue fighting for ambitious and concrete climate action in Europe.”

So here’s how it works… You take people by surprise. You ask them to chose from a narrow range of issues. And then you ask them again. And Again. And again. You don’t give them the benefit of making a decision in the context of a debate. And you don’t canvass them for their opinion about costs and benefits, either ‘globally’ or in relation to themselves. You don’t tell them that the results will be used to legitimise certain policies. You compare their opinions to a historic low, and say that the answers demonstrate growing support for your policies — the bases of which have never been tested for popular assent at the ballot box.


  1. Jim south london

    There only one monumental opinion poll that will count this years
    It is all encompassing and spreads across all classes ages races creeds and genders will be reperesented from John O groats to Lands End
    It will united all peoples young and old of this great nation
    Everyone is included everyone will have thier say
    Who is worthy enough to win Xfactor


    As soon as they put up a “post your comments section on that page on the Guardian website
    If everyone was to pile on there and start posting about whoses going to win Xfactor ,Strictly Come Dancing and Big Brother

    What are they important issues in everyones lives i would say voting on TV reality shows seems to be

    The economic crisis cant really do much about it just hope we all have our jobs next month

    But we are pretty certain the planet will be here this month pretty much the same as it always is

    Check out the second comment down from Paul Brazier London

    What a nasty horrible bastard

    I would love to see you get mugged and some group of Chavs rob your mobile off you
    You wouldnt be complaining about your carbon footprint then
    You smug little s–t

    [ADMIN: Jim, please keep it chilled, on topic, etc. Thanks.]

    Well taliking of being chilled out admin
    I thought about it somemore
    I dont want him to get mugged now

    I want the bailifs to go roungd his house take his kids and his mrs mobiles and his cooker and his fridge and his freezer and his TV and his laptop and his DVD and his kids Xbox basically every single object in his home that you have to plug in
    When you cant afford to heat your home you dont have to worry about your carbon footprint and in his case his credit card bills either
    These are the sort of people we are up against

    Steve Jobs loved his Dope and his Acid he loved scr—ing hippy chicks and most of all loved his Gadgets and wanted his gadgets to look cool simple as and also he was the film producer of Toy Story and Nemo didnt know that
    He wasnt really an inventer but he was the man and he put the internet in everyones pocket and everyone as in the whole of humanity
    So big it up for Steve RIP

    Sorry Ben Rant over (You can delete all this stuff i wrote if you want )

    Yeah laters

  2. geoffchambers

    I disagree about the utility of opinion polls. They’re good at doing the only thing they’re devised to do, which is gauge public opinion, provided the questions are properly framed and the answers properly interpreted. Which of course is often not the case. Most surveys are rubbish because most of almost everything is rubbish.
    Of course “X% of people believe climate change is a very serious problem” is pretty meaningless in itself. But variations over time, or within social groups, can be very enlightening.
    For example, worrying about the climate is a middle class thing. Yet climate sceptics tend to be better informed on the question than warming believers. That’s a significant, counter-intuitional finding. Similarly, if “belief” goes up or down significantly over time, you don’t have to worry about the detail of what belief means. You know that you’re measuring something.
    This is the basis of Durkheimian sociology, and denying the significance of opinion research comes close to denying the reality of social facts ( a position popularised by Thatcher’s statement that “there’s no such thing as society” – a coherent, though somewhat extreme postion, and one which is probably gaining in popularity, e.g. on the Delingpole fringe of conservatism).
    Of course, most polls, and particularly most interpretation of polls, are crass, because most researchers aren’t Durkheim. The bad sociology you lambasted in your last post is due in part to the fact that original intellectual movements (psychoanalysis is another) attract epigones who are not up to the intellectual level of the founding fathers.
    You’re absolutely right that “opinions, such as they are, really don’t exist in a vacuum. People form ideas about the world by existing within it, and interacting with it”. Only journalists and naive politicians think that opinion polls measure the considered opinions of individuals. Stopping people in the street with a questionnaire is itself a social interaction, and measures social facts.

    I actually thought this Eurosurvey was rather good. It doesn’t get bogged down in silly quiz questions of attribution like “how much do you think man is warming the planet?” Of course, the opinions of 99% of the population on such a question are worthless.
    The question asking people to rate climate change and other worries on a ten-point scale (p 73 of pdf) gives an interesting insight into the extremes versus the middle. Only 1% think that climate change represents no problem at all (rising to a massive 3% in the UK), confirming my Cassandra-like bleatings that we sceptics are getting absolutely nowhere.
    Comparisons between countries are also baffling, and therefore interesting. For instance, belief in the seriousness of the problem of climate change is highest where it’s coldest (Sweden and Finland), also in Denmark, Spain, and Germany, which have experienced expensive scandals over renewables, and also in Greece, where you’d think they had other things to worry about. The Greek result may suggest that, when you’re worried, you’ll worry about anything.

    I’ll come back when I’ve looked into this further.

  3. geoffchambers

    Your last paragraph criticisng the use of polls to justify policy and short-circuit democracy is absolutely right. But that doesn’t stop us from using the data they collect for their own propaganda reasons in order to overturn their reasoning. Isn’t that what Marx did? The difference being that it was easier for a revolutionary political refugee to get a hearing in the media in Victorian Britain (Marx was European correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune) than for climate sceptics to be heard in today’s press.

  4. Gogs

    The whole survey is badly worded.
    For instance, the following are all flow-ons from the real number one problem, increasing global population:

    lack of drinking water,
    energy shortages,
    infectious diseases
    and possibly armed conflicts or terrorism

    Fix the population problem by giving family planning to the 300 million women who lack it, and a lot of this will decrease.

  5. Mooloo

    I would be hugely interested to see the poll run again with the option “pollution and environmental degradation (other than from carbon dioxide)” available. As it stands there is conveniently no option to vote on something most people are hugely concerned about. Presumably deliberately.

    How many people voted “climate change” as a proxy for other environmental worries?

  6. geoffchambers

    Respondents are not asked four times the same question. They’re asked “Which of the following do you consider to be the single most serious problem facing the world as a whole? “ followed by “Any others? (Maximum three answers) Except that the German follow-up question is “and in second place?” which doesn’t seem to hav discouraged Germans from giving 3rd and 4th answers, since Germans give an average of 3.9 answers, compared to 3.3 for the British. A sign of German thoroughness, or do we phlegmatic Brits stop worrying after three?

    The biggest differences in national responses are to the question:
    “And how serious a problem do you think climate change is at this moment? Please use a scale from 1 to 10, where ‘1’ would mean that it is ‘not at all a serious problem’ and ’10’ would mean that it is ‘an extremely serious problem’.”
    This question deals with Ben’s valid point about polls not measuring the strength of opinion. Most people have hazy opinions on most subjects, and like to see themselves as moderates, so I think it’s fair to say that those giving a 1 or a 10 can be considered as committed sceptics and warmists repectively. Here are the scores for a selection of countries (sceptics first):

    Czech Rep 2% 30%
    Germany 2% 22%
    Estonia 7% 12%
    Ireland 1% 13%
    Greece 0% 40%
    Spain 1% 27%
    France 1% 20%
    Italy 1% 25%
    Cyprus 0% 50%
    Netherlands 2% 5%
    Finland 3% 10%
    Slovakia 1% 37%
    UK 3% 12%
    Total EU 1% 21%

    What’s going on here? How come the Dutch aren’t worried about rising sea levels? Do 50% of Cypriots read George Monbiot? Are Czechs and Slovaks demonstrating their opposition to ex-president Vaclav Klaus?
    The figures for committed warmists bear no relation to the strength of Greens in the various countries, or to any climate-related facts that I can think of.
    Whatever the reasons for the huge variations, 21% committed warmists is huge. Given the tiny readership of the serious press in most European countries, I’d guess that less than 5% of the population has ever read a serious article by an environmental journalist. As Ben says: “opinions, such as they are, really don’t exist in a vacuum. People form ideas about the world by existing within it, and interacting with it”. So where on earth did they get this idea?

    Excellent point about climate change as a proxy. Maybe all those Greeks worried about climate change are really expressing their worry that all that plastic on the beach is frightening away the tourists.

  7. Ben Pile

    Geoff — respondents are not asked four times the same question. They’re asked “Which of the following do you consider to be the single most serious problem facing the world as a whole? “ followed by “Any others? (Maximum three answers) Except that the German follow-up question is “and in second place?”

    That’s what I thought, too. But then if you add the percentages up, they come to 323. If interviewees were only allowed to give three answers, which are included in the table, there could only be a maximum of 300 per cent, so presumably, people did not give four full answers. I admit to perhaps not having understood the maths here.

  8. Ben Pile

    Geoff. Here’s the total for EU27…

    QD1T Which of the following do you consider to be the single most serious problem facing the world as a whole? Any others?

    Climate change: 51
    Availability of energy: 28
    International terrorism: 38
    Poverty, hunger and lack of drinking water: 64
    Spread of infectious diseases: 27
    Economic situation: 45
    The proliferation of nuclear weapons: 18
    Armed conflicts: 28
    The increasing world population: 21
    Other (spont.): 1
    Don’t know : 2
    [TOTAL]: 323

  9. Ben Pile

    Geoff, these are the averages for QD1T for all countries…

    BE: 338
    BG: 340
    CZ: 315
    DK: 362
    DE: 359
    EE: 307
    IE: 342
    EL: 347
    ES: 315
    FR: 338
    IT: 308
    CY: 375
    LV: 312
    LT: 306
    LU: 302
    HU: 332
    MT: 292
    NL: 338
    AT: 364
    PL: 267
    PT: 303
    RO: 299
    SI: 333
    SK: 336
    FI: 345
    SE: 351
    UK: 305

  10. Ben Pile

    The graphic showing QD1T is on page 9 of the report. The per-country stats are on page 70 and 71. IT was this that first made me thing something weird was going on with the maths. I then realised I didn’t need the maths to show this survey up as a load of old bunk. My guess is that 77% of respondents didn’t give a fourth answer (or in an equivalent ratio), thus the totals are only 323.

  11. Peter S

    I notice that this poll included children aged 15 years and up. It’s worth wondering how much a poll can be skewed by seeking the opinion of young, impressionable minds still being indoctrinated about climate change on a daily basis at their schools and colleges. A similar U.S. poll – claiming similar results – was recently in the headlines of the MSM. The small print in its methodology revealed the interviewers were required to seek out the youngest member of a household first (above 18) as respondent. Also, ‘don’t knows’ were discouraged by pressing the respondent with: ‘If you had to choose, which answer would you give?’ Given that these youngsters are bombarded from all sides with climate change fear-mongering, it’s not hard to guess what their forced answer would have been.

  12. Alex Cull

    Geoff: “Similarly, if “belief” goes up or down significantly over time, you don’t have to worry about the detail of what belief means. You know that you’re measuring something.”

    On that note, here’s a website that has been tracking UK farmers opinions about climate change, fairly consistently from 2008. You can see that those answering yes to the question “Is climate change having an effect on your farm / land now?” went from 60.3% in 2008, to 50.5% in 2009, to 38.4% in 2010 and 34% in 2011.

    Even though the question is not formulated particularly well, we can still see that something is changing – we know not precisely what is changing, thanks to the vagueness of the question. However, I’m surmising that “climate change” means anthropogenic global warming, “an effect” is some perceived (probably negative) change to crops or livestock that seems out of the ordinary, and that the decline could be down to an increasing number of farmers who in previous years were ascribing some kind of local phenomenon or other to man-made global warming, but who now put it down to natural variability. I could be mistaken in the detail, of course, but something has changed.

  13. JunkkMale

    I have to say that the use, and abuse of statistics, especially in polls, does rather support the (in)famous quote on their value.

    Another, related, Guardian contribution:

    Trying to find whether I was one of Ms. Watts’ ‘us’ or where the 1% ‘them’ was located, I was sadly left none the wiser.

  14. geoffchambers

    I agree entirely with your analysis of the reasoning behind this poll; the climate commissioner desperately needs to show that people are still worried about climate change, economic crisis or no crisis. He and all his kind need us to be worrying about the kinds of things that only he and his kind can deal with. And Q (comment 1) is quite right to point out that putting climate change at the top of the list will bias the results. Good practice would be to rotate the order.
    That said, they have a result which must cheer them, and which isn’t affected by the above bias in the survey structure; the true believers (who give climate change 10/10) outnumber the true disbelievers 20:1. except in a few countries (UK, Estonia, Finland, Netherlands) where the ratio is between 2:1 and 4:1. Even if you look at the distribution of the “moderates”, (p 77 of report) it’s well skewed towards the warmist end, peaking at 8 on the seriousness scale. This result corresponds to what we see around us in the media, and explains a lot of the frustration of activists. Knowing that “they” outnumber “us” 20:1, they just can’t understand where the resistance is coming from.
    Alex’s fascinating survey result in comment 14 may have the answer. If global warming was having bad results locally, you’d expect realisation of the fact would increase over time, as unusual weather occurred more and more widely. Instead, belief in global warming at a local level has dropped from 60% to 34% in just three years.
    I’ll bet belief in the extraterrestrial origin of crop circles has followed a similar evolution. In other words, belief in climate change is a cultural phenomenon, subject to fashion like any other. We hardline sceptics tend to see the resemblances to fascism or the Inquisition, but maybe it’s more like Feng Chui or flared trousers.

  15. Peter S

    Geoff – …the climate commissioner desperately needs to show that people are still worried about climate change, economic crisis or no crisis. He and all his kind need us to be worrying about the kinds of things that only he and his kind can deal with.

    I think you are correct. In this and his previous article, Ben correctly identifies a poverty but then mis-locates it in the object. The impoverishment is in the prior need – for which the objects have been made and used to meet. That the objects (the diagram and the poll) are so insubstantial is only a testament to how impoverished the need actually is.

    A need is impoverished not for lack of objects which are readily available to meet it, but by what its owner polices out of it. It is here, I think, that the anti-human AGW phenomenon will eventually unravel.

  16. geoffchambers

    Ben #9
    Respondents can give a maximum of four responses, prompted by a follow-up question of the kind “any others?” So the total %s you give at #11 make sense.
    Peter S
    Can you explain what you mean by “what the owner of a need polices out of it”?
    I understand the “object” as being the diagrams and the survey, and the “need” as being the need of the warmists to muster evidence for their cause; evidence for the “truth” of the science (the hockeystick); the power or their enemies (the “Denial Machine” flow chart); or their own numerical strength (the opinion poll).
    They’re all magical artefacts of a kind, and the poll and the graph require a quantity of number-crunching which has only become possible in the past couple of decades. Even the flow chart really needs to be done on a computer to make it look convincing. So we’re looking at artefacts which couldn’t have existed in the period before the danger they’re supposed to illustrate became evident. New dangers require new forms of evidence.
    There’s a lot more to be said about the poverty of diagrams, I think, and about Ben’s question as to which diagram is a better symbol of the excesses of the ‘environmental machine’. You might like to discuss that on the “poverty of diagrams” thread.
    Incidentally, I take the last two titles as being references to Marx’s “Poverty of Philosophy”. I think Ben is setting us up for a discussion which will range far outside the normal climate debate.

  17. Ben Pile

    Geoff — Respondents can give a maximum of four responses, prompted by a follow-up question of the kind “any others?” So the total %s you give at #11 make sense.

    Not nit-picking… Just attempting to understand if you’re still suggesting I was wrong to criticise QD1T for asking the interviewees for four answers — i.e. HALF of the ‘problems’. I think this is an important point, because it’s not clear how the questions are put to the interviewer in the analysis (ie waiting until you get the right answer).

    This skews the results, I think, because the graphic really ought to say “when asked to name up to four global problems, 51% of interviewees picked climate change from a list of eight”. The results should be listed, also in terms of the order, if a fair comparison is to be made. Ie, 20% of interviews selected it as their first choice, 15% as their second, 10% as their third, and 6% as their fourth. The remarkable thing, then, would be that half of people didn’t even chose climate change, given FOUR chances to. This colours the comforting (to the warmists) results that ‘they’ outnumber ‘us’ 20:1.

  18. geoffchambers

    It’s a bit like the system for choosing the leader of the Labour Party isn’t it. “Let’s make it so complicated that we’re sure to get the result which satisfies nobody”.

    Some nitpicking from me – it’s a choice of nine (ten, if you count the possibility to add your own suggestion, which hardly anybody did, of course).
    I agree with your point that, by giving the possibility of up to four responses, you diminish the significance of a “high” score. The advantage of this system (and this was perhaps the reason for doing it this way) is that you allow the more concerned to express their concern, and in some sense to give their vote more weight than that of the “don’t cares” who presumably stop after one choice.
    As you and Mooloo pointed out, the choice of problems is highly debatable, and I’m sure polling experts and psychologists would agree with you that there’s a strong possibility that this kind of polling simply results in respondents bouncing back what they’ve heard on the media.

    I thought the “victory” of poverty was interesting, since the subject has hardly had the coverage of climate change, economic crisis, war or terrorism. It’s always been a mystery to me why the “Make Poverty History” movement was strangled at birth, since at the time of Gleneagles it looked like Blair’s ticket to re-election, Presidency of the European Union, and a Nobel Peace Prize. It can’t be for lack of money, since Climate Change is going to cost us far more, and lose votes for whoever implements it. My guess is that the people at Oxfam and other centres of policymaking are happier drawing flowcharts and reading spreadsheets than they are digging wells in Africa, and who am I to blame them?

  19. Jack Hughes

    The survey is meaningless. Asking people to rank “global problems” assumes that people care about “global issues” and does not measure any priority they may or may not give to “global” matters above “non-global” matters.

    As well as that, people know the “correct” answers – especially when you feed them the answer.

    A better measure of REAL public opinion is listening to what people talk about in the pub, in the works canteen, at a football match, on a bus.

    I have never once heard anyone talking about “climate change” in these natural settings.

    People grumble about these things in this rough order:
    * The weather
    * Family fall-out problems
    * Relatives struggling to get work
    * Prices going up
    * Things they have bought recently that are crap
    * Nothing on TV

    and so on. Never “global climate”. In fact never global anything.

  20. Alex Cull

    Then there’s the gap between words and actions, i.e. the difference between the things people will say to a marketing person/pollster and what they will actually do, whether it be where they put their x on a ballot paper or what they choose to spend their money on.

    Take energy, for example. Here in the UK, it’s possible to go online and switch gas and electricity supplier, either directly or via a price comparisons website such as uSwitch. Anyone doing this cannot fail to notice that there is, more often than not, a filter or an option to search for “green” energy. These tariffs are usually more expensive than the cheapest tariffs offered by the “Big Six” energy companies (EDF, E-ON and the rest). But to anyone with a computer and internet access, they are not hard to find.

    This is from a web article by consultants MJM Energy:

    Ofgem’s surveys indicate that 41% of domestic gas customers and 40% of domestic electricity customers have switched supplier at some point, in 2010 switching levels were estimated to be 17% and 15% respectively. In relative terms these are high levels, and compare very favourably with most European markets, as well as other examples of retail energy market competition in North America and elsewhere.

    Now, there have been several newcomers to the energy market – Ecotricity in 1995, Good Energy in 1999 and Ovo Energy in 2009 – who supply “green” energy to consumers; however, their market share is minuscule, as the “Big Six” still hold over 99.5 of the market between them. And going by the fact that about 60% of customers have never switched energy provider, I think it fair to say that there is a degree of inertia among consumers. From the MJM Energy article:

    …Ofgem, and the energy industry, may need to face up to the fact that buying cheaper energy is just not that interesting to most customers, and efforts to encourage switching in these sectors may be doomed to failure.

    On uSwitch’s website, it says “Most of us would opt for green or renewable energy if we could, but there’s no denying that it can be more expensive.”

    But if the majority of people in the UK were really more concerned about man-made climate change than they were about financial turmoil or the economy, greater numbers would surely make the effort to switch to a “greener” energy tariff, even if it cost more. Instead of which, most people appear to be staying with the devil they know, or switching from one to another of the Big Six rather than to “greener” suppliers such as Ecotricity.

    So people might talk about being more worried about the planet than they are about the economy. But I think their actions tell a rather different story.

  21. geoffchambers

    for more examples of people’s tendency to say the right-sounding things to interviewers, see the survey report pages 79- 85, where respondents are asked what efforts they are personally making to save the environment.
    There are surprising differences between countries. Luxemburgers try and avoid taking short haul flights where possible (presumably if they want to go abroad they walk) and the Maltese make a considerable effort to recycle their waste. (When I lived there as a kid, the contents of our dustbins were recycled every evening by a herd of passing goats. An idea for cash-strapped councils in Britain?).

  22. Fay Kelly-Tuncay

    Now why isn’t the Guardian talking about these poll?

    Just 25% of the British public agree with low-carbon energy

    “It is vital to stick to Government plans for creating a low-carbon power industry even if it means higher bills.

    SUM: Agree 25%

    Strongly agree 4%
    Somewhat agree 21%
    Neither agree nor disagree 29%
    Strongly disagree 13%

    SUM: Disagree 42%

    (Populus Poll June 2011)

    And this:

    Temperature rise is a part of global warming or climate change. 

    Do you think rising temperatures are…?

    A result of natural causes 39% A result of human activity  37% 

    (GALLUP Poll of United Kingdom 22 April 2011)

    I actually think these are accurate.

  23. Peter S

    Geoff – Can you explain what you mean by “what the owner of a need polices out of it”?

    I mean that an environmentalist’s need can be self-tyrannised so that it is no longer met by knowledge – but only by confirmation… of the ideas the person is trying to sustain about the planet. In the same way, an anorexic might persecute her needing for food – and replace it with a need for whatever confirms the ideas she is trying to sustain about her body. In both instances, it is the real object (knowledge and food) which risks exposing the denial and the impoverishment-of-need required to sustain it.

  24. Bob Cousins

    One of the problems with polls like this is that what people say and what they do are different things. Showing concern for others is regarded as a good trait, being selfish is regarding as bad. So no one likes to admit they are selfish, even if that is the truth.

    For example, if you ask people if they think public transport is a good idea, most people say yes. If you ask if they would or do use it, a lot less people say yes. If you ask, would you pay more taxes to fund public transport even if you did not use it, you get the least positive response, which probably also corresponds to the real situation.

    Perhaps the reassuring thing is that people put poverty etc top, ahead of climate change. Climate change may theoretically lead to suffering, but there is real suffering already happening now. Providing development aid to poor countries may save more people than the damage caused by increased emissions.

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  1. Opinion polls: how to get the answer you want | Australian Climate Madness - [...] Pile at Climate Resistance has more: So here’s how it works… You take people by surprise. You ask them…

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