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What the media should remember on climate change and the IPCC report

by Leo Barasi     September 26, 2013 at 8:44 am

When the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report is published this week, most UK media coverage will be along the lines of:

Scientists say humans are almost certainly responsible for climate change and the world is on course for unprecedented warming over the next century. But the report reflects a gap between scientists and the general public, with growing numbers saying they don’t believe what scientists tell them about climate change.

If anyone doing interviews about the report is daft enough to be reading this blog, there are a few points I would suggest making.

1. The overwhelming majority of the country do believe climate change is real and the world needs to act to stop it.

Around 9 in 10 people think that climate change is happening – only 6% think it’s some kind of conspiracy*. And only 13% – fewer than one in seven people – say it won’t be a threat to Britain.

To put that in perspective, 18% say they want to get rid of the Queen and make Britain a republic: hardly a mainstream view, yet more popular than climate scepticism.

Those numbers haven’t really changed for the last four years**.

2. The report tells us in more detail, with more confidence, what we can expect to happen as a result of climate change

The two most important climate risks for the UK are flooding and summer heatwaves.

The floods in 2007 are estimated to have cost the economy £3.2bn pounds.

We usually don’t think about heatwaves as a bad thing, but the heatwave we had in August 2003 killed over 2,000 people.

Both heatwaves and floods are predicted to become much more common and more severe.

There are still uncertainties. Science by its very nature is never final and certain. But we know enough now to act.

At this point, you may be tempted to talk about how many degrees the world is projected to warm by. Don’t. 4° warming may sound terrifying to you, but it sounds fine to most people.

3. The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is happening. The question is now: what are we going to do about it?

Countries around the world have pledged to reduce the emissions that cause climate change. Even the countries that have traditionally been slow to act – like China and America – are now saying they will cut back their carbon pollution.

Getting these pledges is an important start, but the world needs to do a lot more to make them happen. That includes us – the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change says we’re not on course to meet our commitment to cut our pollution.

And even if the world does cut its emissions, we’re already on course for some global warming. We have to make plans so we’re ready for it.

In the UK lots of people may wonder if their home will now be at more risk of flooding and if they’ll be able to get insurance. Some people may worry about older relatives and the effect of heatwaves on their health.

What are these risks? Is the government doing enough? At the moment we don’t know because the information isn’t public.

This is what we should be talking about – so we can hold the government to account, to make sure it deals effectively with the most important risks, and spends our money well.

* A poll this month from the UK Energy Research Centre put those who say it’s not happening at 19%. A fair bit higher than the 5% above, but still barely a quarter of the number who say it’s happening.

** In fact, they went down a bit and then came back up. But the overall effect is of no change.

The Tories have a bigger problem than just UKIP

by Leo Barasi     September 16, 2013 at 9:00 am

Lord Ashcroft’s mega poll of key marginals, released yesterday, has been interpreted as showing three things:

1) Labour are doing very well against the Tories in the Tory-Labour battlegrounds

2) The Lib Dems are doing less well but still ok against the Tories in the Tory-LD battlegrounds

3) The Tories’ problems are a result of their voters defecting to UKIP

I agree with the first two interpretations, but the third looks to me to be a misreading of the data. Its extensive coverage in papers that would prefer Cameron to be more UKIP-like – the Telegraph, Mail & Express – suggests wishful thinking.

I’m going to focus on the poll of Tory-Labour marginals because that’s got more constituencies (32 vs 8) and a much bigger sample size – and it’s the one the coverage has focused on.

This is a poll of constituencies the Tories hold, so at the last election, Labour were slightly behind in all of them. Yet now the headline voting intent figure has Labour 13pts ahead*:

But UKIP’s vote is 14% and Labour’s lead is only 13pts, so that means UKIP are the reason Labour are leading in the constituencies, right?


Not even two in five of that 14% who would vote UKIP in the next election voted Tory in 2010:

If UKIP were to disappear after the EU elections and the Tories were to be reunited with their lost voters, they would gain just 5.3pts – not nearly enough to overhaul Labour’s lead. And of course if UKIP were to disappear, some of those Labour defectors could return, potentially adding 2pts to Labour’s score. Put those together and the UKIP damage to the Tories is just over 3pts: less than a quarter of Labour’s lead.

This isn’t to say Labour’s lead in these constituencies is secure. Out of the main parties it has kept the highest proportion of its 2010 voters, and of course it’s had a sizeable chunk of people who abandoned the Lib Dems after the coalition was agreed. But it also has the largest number of people who didn’t vote in 2010**:

These people have already said in the poll that they’re going to vote at the next election, but the high proportion of people who didn’t vote in 2010 is a risk if they regularly don’t turn up at elections (though some are probably first-time voters). And of course there are other reasons the Labour vote may fall.

But the idea that UKIP is the reason the Tories are behind in these key marginals is just not true – or at best it’s a quarter of the truth.

* There’s a separate voting intent question that encourages respondents to think about their particular constituency. This might be a better guide of how people will actually vote when push comes to shove, but I’m not using it here because I’d rather stick with something that’s comparable with other polls. Anyway, UKIP’s vote is smaller there and Labour’s lead is larger.

** The tables don’t show exactly what proportion of those “Other/Didn’t vote” were non-voters in 2010 (they need to be weighted by turnout), but the raw numbers suggest they’re overwhelmingly non-voters and that more than half of those who didn’t vote in 2010 but would now, would now vote Labour.

This is how we can convince Britons about climate change

by Leo Barasi     September 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I’ve been arguing for a while that there’s been too little done to explain to the British public why they should care about climate change. If the problem is seen only to affect animals and people in other countries, campaigners will struggle to win mass support for action to tackle climate change. It has to be made real and personal, or many people just won’t care enough.

But that raises a difficult question. If people don’t already think that climate change will affect them and their family, how do you persuade them they should care?

Fortunately, a mega poll by MORI for Defra provides some answers and the starting point for what a campaign could look like.

According to the UK Climate Risk Assessment, the two most important climate risks facing the UK are flooding and summer heatwaves; I will focus on these as the possible bases for a campaign. However, the poll shows a radical difference in how they are perceived.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that most people in the UK think that flooding is the main risk from climate change (bear with me – it gets more interesting).

The chart below shows the proportion who think flooding has already become more frequent and the proportion who think it will become more frequent by 2050 – and the same for heatwaves. Flooding easily wins out:

Perhaps this is a product of how heatwaves and floods are distributed. Different parts of the country suffer floods at different times, and most serious incidents get news coverage – while heatwaves tend to hit the country in one go, so coverage is more concentrated. So floods may just be in the news more often*.

But I don’t think that’s the full explanation, and here’s where it starts to get interesting.

A later question asked respondents to move on from considering the likelihood, and to say how concerned they’d be if the UK actually experienced these changes. The results are similar: far more people would be worried by more flooding – in fact, more people say they wouldn’t be concerned by heatwaves than that they would be:

So, even if a campaign succeeded in convincing more people that, as it were, summer is coming, most people wouldn’t be that bothered by the prospect. The point is superbly encapsulated in ITN’s presentation of the deadly heatwave this summer. A few hundred people may be dying, but overall everyone’s basking in it and generally having a nice time:

I take two main conclusions from this for campaigns about UK responses to climate change.

Firstly, if someone were to start a campaign now about why people in the UK should want action on climate change, the obvious choice would be flooding. People believe it’s already happening, that it’s going to get worse, and that its worsening would be a major problem. While the poll also shows most people don’t think they personally are at risk from flooding, they’re still concerned and there’s nothing else that has so much legitimacy at the moment.

However, this isn’t to say campaigners should forget about heatwaves. Because another question shows that the conjuction fallacy is affecting the results**. The principle of this fallacy is that people often think that a specific condition, described in detail, is more likely than a broader condition, which is not described in detail, but which the specific condition is an example of.

In this case, we’ve already seen that people don’t think heatwaves are very likely. But when you give them more details about what you mean – make it real – by spelling out the impacts of a heatwave, the proportion who think it’s likely becomes much greater. There’s no equivalent change with flooding, perhaps because most people have already thought about what it means:

Even with this effect, heatwaves are still seen as less likely – but the gap is much smaller, and the following question that tests concern about these specific impacts finds no difference between the described-in-detail floods and heatwaves.

So the case may not yet have been won for why people in the UK should really care about tackling climate change, and flooding looks like the strongest ground for developing the argument further, with the potential to be credible and effective. But with some work to demonstrate the connection between the principle and what it means in practice, there’s no reason heatwaves can’t ultimately be part of a campaign as well.

The challenge now for those opposed to Fracking across the UK

by Leo Barasi     August 20, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Carbon Brief’s new poll shows how little support there is for shale gas fracking in the UK. But while the poll suggests supporters of shale have problems to overcome, it also shows that anti-fracking have a real challenge ahead.

Shale gas wells have the lowest support out of any domestic source of energy. Fewer than one in five would support the building of a shale well within 10 miles of their home: that compares with more than half who support wind turbines.

But opposition to shale isn’t yet solid. There are still 40% who aren’t sure either way about local fracking, and fewer opponents than there are for both coal and nuclear. The argument can still swing either way.

And dig into the reasons for people’s opinions about shale, and it’s clear that both sides have problems.

Support for fracking is on shaky ground

The reasons why people support shale are strongly angled towards its being a crucial source of energy for the country.

This is a winning argument if the debate happens on a national level. Everyone knows we need some kind of energy source, so if people agree that shale can provide secure, low-cost domestic energy for the country, it’s hard to find a national-level argument that beats it*.

But this only works if fracking will happen in, say, desolate and sparsely populated places. It’s less effective if fracking happens where people live and you’re facing emotional** arguments.

The reasons for opposition to shale indeed show the challenge for its supporters.

Earthquakes and contaminated drinking water not only sound horrible for people living near wells – they’re also outrageous enough to mobilise outrage across the country. If the country believes that fracking causes so much local damage (regardless of whether it does), the benefits of energy security aren’t enough to win the argument.

Anti-frackers have to make a tough decision

But this is also a major problem for anti-frackers – who have a big decision to make.

There are broadly two ways of framing an anti-shale campaign. It can either be national and calculating, focused on greenhouse gas emissions and the lack of affordably extractable gas; or it can be local and emotional, focused on earthquakes and contaminated water supplies.

The national argument is losing right now. About twice as many say they support fracking because it reduces our dependence on imports, than say they oppose shale gas because it increases carbon emissions (perhaps it should have included methane, but I doubt that would have swung much). Even fewer are worried about whether there’s enough to extract or the cost of doing so.

So campaigners may choose instead to make their arguments local and emotional. This would be natural given current opinion and the potential potency of the arguments (ironically it’s the same approach that opponents of wind farms have taken)

But if you’re really opposing shale because of climate change or because you think it’s inefficient, relying on a different argument is risky. A few successful and safe shale extractions in the UK could undermine your campaign. In fact, media coverage over the last week or so has already begun to dismiss risks of earthquakes and contaminated water. If a campaign is based on earthquakes etc, and those don’t come to pass, it’s going to be in trouble after a year or two (though it’s true plenty of anti-wind farm campaigns haven’t been derailed by contradictory evidence).

Of course campaigns can try doing both: start with earthquakes and, if they don’t come to pass, fall back on climate change. But given how much less traction the climate argument has at the moment, it would need a lot of work to become credible. And switching arguments like that is always risky: you look opportunistic and unprincipled. Doing the two at the same time could mean doing both badly.

For now fracking is facing a tough time. Local protests make every new extraction controversial and politically difficult, and the fracking industry is struggling on the arguments it has to win. But the country is still largely undecided, and despite the current lack of support, evidence of successful extraction could undermine what is currently the key argument against it. Opponents may be doing well at the moment but the source of that support may not be stable.

Alastair Campbell shows why no one cares about the Falkirk row, but it still matters

by Leo Barasi     July 9, 2013 at 8:01 am

A standard rule of commentary is that, whenever a major news story comes along, writers of all political sides waste no time in declaring that it demonstrates how they were right all along.

The good news is, I’m only going to do that for the first half of this post. Feel free to skip to the bit under the second sub-head if you’re bored of that kind of thing.

Why Falkirk doesn’t matter: no-one’s noticed

Labour’s Falkirk troubles will need little introduction to the kind of supremely wise and good-looking person who reads a blog about public opinion. In fact, it’s been hard to avoid for anyone who reads the politics pages or is into political Twittering. Even before Tom Watson’s resignation, it was easily the dominant political story.

But that’s where appearances deceive. Everyone who reads Dan Hodges’s blogs or watches Prime Minister’s Questions should remember how different their experience is from the vast majority of the country’s

As usual, this is a political story that feels far more game-changing to the politerati than it does to the rest of the country. From the blogs, tweet and briefings, you’d think this was revolutionising the political views of the nation. But in reality there’s been no discernible change.

The proportion who’d vote for Labour, in YouGov’s tracker, is 39-40%: as it’s been since mid-April. The underlying perceptions of the parties haven’t changed either according to YouGov: during June, Labour lost a couple of points in being seen as able to take tough and unpopular decisions, but over the same time it actually improved its score in being seen as less old and tired, and also in having moved on and left its past behind.

So anyone who says that Falkirk is hurting Labour needs to come up with the evidence. So far there’s nothing to show that the public cares.

Why Falkirk matters a lot: opportunity cost

But there’s another side to it. I used to work for an agency that was set up to run political campaigns. One of our slogans, particularly when we were talking to the private sector and wanted to flex our political credentials, was “if you’re not winning, you’re losing”. I’ve no idea who came up with the line, but it perfectly describes why Falkirk really matters for Labour.

Even if Falkirk drags on and even if the party becomes more split about it, the problem for Labour wouldn’t be direct damage to its reputation. It’s a process story that can’t be easily summarised to someone who doesn’t care about process stories (that is, nearly everyone): Labour’s poll scores won’t take a hit. The problem is the opportunity cost.

Alastair Campbell recently delivered a brilliant speech about strategic communications (transcript here). The key part for Labour is this:

You need strategy and one that is so clear, so strong, so thought through that nobody can be in doubt as to what it is. Nobody internally, nobody externally. And the best strategies can be communicated in a word, a phrase, a paragraph, a page, a speech, and a book.

The word – Modernisation.
The phrase – New Labour New Britain.
The paragraph – Many not the few, future not the past, leadership not drift, education the No 1 priority. …

We had three years with TB as leader before an election. My goal was that by the time of the election, when his face came on screen, or people saw that slogan, they had an idea what was coming, regardless of what the newsreader or any other intermediary said.

For all the work Miliband’s team have done in keeping the party together, winning and retaining 2010 Lib Dem voters, and consistently leading the Tories, no-one would claim that he’s reached the point where, as soon as he comes on screen, people know what he’s going to say.

It’s still 22 months to the election: time enough to get to that point, but not long enough to have time to waste. Every week Labour spends talking to itself is a week when it’s not communicating a vision for why it should run the country. That’s the main threat from Falkirk, and why the best outcome for the party is one where Miliband turns it into a definition of what he stands for.

Climate change denial is less popular than abolishing the monarchy

by Leo Barasi     June 26, 2013 at 8:55 am

I said in my previous post that talking about climate denial is a mistake for campaigners, for various reasons, including that doubts about climate science are far less widespread than usually seems to be imagined.

Without wanting to labour the point, a new international Pew poll has just shown this again. The poll listed various possible global threats, and for each asked whether respondents consider them to be major or minor threats, or not to be threats.

For UK perceptions of climate change, the poll found the biggest group to be those who consider it a major threat (about half), followed by those who say it’s a minor threat (about a third), with only a small group saying it’s not a threat:

That 13% is about the same as the proportion in the Carbon Brief poll who said “climate change will probably never be a serious problem”.

To put this in perspective, about 18% want Britain to become a republic. So the view that climate change isn’t a threat is significantly less widespread than the desire to abolish the monarchy.

From the way rejection of climate science is treated as a major phenomenon, you might not have guessed.

How the debate on climate change went wrong, and how we can turn it around

by Leo Barasi     June 10, 2013 at 9:30 am

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be out from September this year. This should be a big deal: it’s six years since the last report, and that was headline news at the time. The report will be a chance for climate change, and what we do about it, to be one of the top issues in public debate for the first time since the 2009 Copenhagen Conference.

But for climate campaigners, activists and anyone who wants better action on climate change, what should be done with this opportunity? I believe it would be a mistake to use the coverage of the report to try to score points in the same arguments that have dominated over the last few years.

Instead, there are other approaches that could reach a wider audience, move the debate past recurring arguments, and perhaps create a basis for more useful action on climate change.

We need to stop talking about climate denial

The problem, as I see it, is that much of the debate about climate change is dominated by whether or not it’s happening, how quickly it will happen, and the meta-debate about why ‘so many people’ don’t agree with the vast majority of climate scientists.

One reason this is a problem was explained by US Republican pollster Frank Luntz: he recognised the goal for opponents of government action on climate change should be “to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate”. So long as the debate is about the science of climate change – most people only hear that there is a debate, not what each side is saying – people aren’t talking about what to do about it.

But you might respond: how can we ask people to agree to action on climate change when they don’t believe it’s happening or caused by humans? It’s a logical question. But the polling shows that it’s a mistake to assume there’s a logical chain of reasoning. In fact, the debate about belief in climate change is based on two misconceptions: that people are widely and increasingly sceptical about climate change, and that their desire for action to tackle climate change depends on the extent to which they think it’s happening.

Because of these misconceptions, I think that the debate about whether or not climate change is happening is a distraction for people who care about climate change, and that we should change the subject.

The evidence is pretty clear that agreement with climate science is high and stable and that doubts about it are not increasing. The following chart is typical in showing that the same proportion now believes that climate change is real and manmade as did so before the UEA email hack. Most people think it’s real and manmade and a third think it’s real but natural; barely one person in 20 thinks it’s a fraud.

Agreement with climate science also fell before the start of the chart above, after a peak sometime around 2006 and the Stern Report.

But the polls suggest that what people say about their belief in climate change doesn’t have much to do with whether they want action to tackle it.

It’s such an important point I’m going to show two separate charts to demonstrate it.

Firstly, a poll just after Copenhagen showed that most people who said they think climate change is natural, or not happening at all, were satisfied with a plan to reduce worldwide emissions. To put it another way, over three in five ‘climate sceptics’ want international action to tackle climate change:

Just in case that was a freak or a mistake, we tested it again in the recent Carbon Brief poll. The conclusion was similar: of those who say climate change is natural and not caused by humans, nearly half want government action to tackle it.

So the evidence is clear. Outright climate denial is low and not increasing. Most people think climate change is real and manmade. And of those who think it’s natural or not happening, many still want government action to tackle it: a logical disconnect that suggests the debate about belief in climate change has been taken more seriously than it deserves. As Chris Rose has pointed out, responses to questions about belief in climate change are often about something else – a declaration of which ‘side’ the respondent is on. It’s not a debate that climate campaigners can win in its own terms.

The question is, if not scientists’ confidence about anthropogenic climate change, what should campaigners and communicators talk about?

Stick them with the pointy end

There are two key arguments that I believe are crucial for improving the case for better action on climate change – but which I don’t see being made at the moment. The first is that climate change is very likely to hurt people in the UK: people alive now and their children. Not just through indirect effects like more expensive food and foreign political instability, but also directly, through flooding and killer heatwaves.

There are people who’ll suffer more from climate change than Brits: people living on flood plains in Bangladesh, in low-lying islands, and in the Sahel, for example. And many wonderful species will become extinct when their habitat changes. Almost everyone is sad to hear about that and agrees that someone should do something. A few internationalists and conservationists might even do something themselves.

But nothing mobilises people like something that directly affects them and their family.

The pointy end of climate change – that the UK is very likely to face more floods and more killer heatwaves – is still largely absent from the debate. It shouldn’t be. The 2003 heatwave killed 2,000 people in the UK; it is likely that summers like that will be the norm by the end of this century. But only 34% in the Carbon Brief poll recognised that climate change is likely to cause more UK summer heatwaves.

This should include a ban among climate campaigners on references to global degrees of warming in conversations with anyone except climate change experts. The thought of the UK becoming 3° warmer sounds quite nice to me. You have to be familiar with the subject to understand what 3° means in practice: much wider variations in temperature and rainfall, with flooding and some summer days that are unbearably hot (yes, in the UK).

Essentially, what I suggest is that climate campaigners follow the example of this road safety film. Don’t just make the message about our responsibility to others, make it about what will happen to us if we don’t put it right:

We’re all in this together

The other argument that’s still missing is the one tackling the view that we shouldn’t make sacrifices for climate change because it would disadvantage us against other countries that aren’t doing the same, particularly China. It usually follows the structure: “why should we do X when China will just build Y power stations in the next week/month/year?”.

But the argument is much easier to rebut. It’s not true that rapidly growing countries like China are leaving the hard work on climate change to developed countries. China may be the world’s biggest emitter (though per person its emissions are still lower than the EU’s when including international transport and/or emissions from production of exported goods), but even as it industrialises it’s now using trading schemes to make it more expensive for its businesses to emit greenhouse gases.

So it shouldn’t be hard to knock back the argument that taking action on climate change puts us at a global disadvantage – and that’s before we start talking about the potential economic benefits of investing in low-carbon industries.

Change the subject

The debate about climate change has stagnated over the last three and a half years, stuck on belief in climate science. But that debate is based both on a dubious claim that scepticism is increasing and on the understandable but misplaced assumption that there’s a logical connection between belief in climate change and desire for action to tackle it.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report will be an opportunity for people who want action on climate change to get it back into the news and to start talking about something that feels meaningful for most people*. Partly this means neutralising the out-of-date criticism that it’s pointless for the UK to make sacrifices to reduce climate change when other countries aren’t doing the same.

But more important is to make the case that tackling climate change is a matter of self-interest for British people. This means recognising that most people are, naturally, more interested in what happens to themselves and their family than what happens to far-off people. The projected impacts of climate change for the UK – floods and killer heatwaves – are themselves serious enough to justify action: it’s time to start talking about them.

Major poll shows belief in Climate Change isn’t falling and scientists ARE trusted

by Leo Barasi     April 2, 2013 at 10:49 am

Last week the site Carbon Brief released information on their extensive energy and climate change polling, which you can read about on their site.

But as with any apparently new information, it’s useful to put the results in the context of what we’ve seen before. How does the poll fit with what others have shown?

I’m going to pick on three places where it’s interesting to compare the new poll with previous ones.

1. Doubts about climate change aren’t rising

I’ve been banging on about this for a while. Poll after poll is showing that belief that climate change is real and man-made is at the same level it was at before Copenhagen, ‘climategate’, the UK’s cold winters, and the subsequent dip in belief.

The Carbon Brief poll adds yet more weight to this. Compared with a question asked by ICM in ’09 and last year, the results show no movement:

It really is time we stopped saying that belief in climate change is falling.

2. ‘Belief’ in climate doesn’t mean that much anyway
One of my favourite charts is from a post-Copenhagen poll that showed that, even among those who said they don’t think global warming has been proven, a majority wanted a reduction in worldwide emissions.

I’ve taken this to indicate there’s a bunch of people who respond to questions about whether they ‘believe’ in climate change as if they’re being asked “are you a tree-hugging leftie who hates business?” – so they say no to that question, but still want the government to do something about climate change.

But is that true? A question in the Carbon Brief poll supports that view, albeit not quite to the extent seen in the Copenhagen poll.

Of those who think climate change or global warming is mostly caused by natural processes (about a third of the total), 45% think that tackling climate change should still be part of the government’s economic programme:

3. There isn’t a big problem with trust in climate scientists
A poll conducted in March ’11 and reported 18 months later by LWEC found that only 38% agreed they trusted climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change. This prompted soul-searching among those worried about public perceptions of climate change.

The phrasing of the LWEC question – “we can trust climate scientists to tell us the truth” – is a very high bar. At a time when trust is low, expecting people to say they trust anyone to tell them the truth, without more reassurance, is asking a lot. I’m also not a fan of the way the trust question came after questions about exaggeration of climate change and agreement among scientists.

Add to this Mori’s trust index, which finds scientists are among the most trusted groups, and that trust in them has gone up over the last decade.
So I don’t think we should be particularly surprised that the new poll showed scientists are the most trusted to deliver information about climate change by a massive margin. The mistake was ever to doubt that they were.

Data from the polls will be published this week.

Is opposition to EU membership collapsing, or is it just bad polling?

by Leo Barasi     January 21, 2013 at 8:50 am

Yesterday’s YouGov poll shows a startling change in attitudes to the EU. The results suggest more people would now vote to stay in the EU than to leave it: 40% staying in against 34% wanting to leave.

That’s a big swing from two months ago, when 49% said they would vote to leave: 17pts ahead of those wanting to stay:

Shifts like these don’t just happen by themselves. But is it real, or is something going on with the polling?

Option 1: a change in opinion

There are grounds for thinking a real shift has happened. The last time ‘vote to stay in’ was this high was December 2011: just after Cameron’s walkout of the EU summit.

At that time, the suggestion that the UK would leave the EU moved from remote to seeming more possible. Perhaps people started responding to the polling question differently: saying “I’d vote to leave the EU” became less of an empty threat.

Maybe that’s what happened this time as well. Over the last couple of weeks, discussions about the UK’s future in the EU have dominated the news again. People have started thinking about their own view, and they’ve responded to YouGov with a more considered opinion, which has taken some people away from the ‘out’ camp.

Option 2: bad polling

Some polling is designed to find out what people would do if they’re exposed to certain information or arguments. If Tesco promised to make its beefburgers with only British ingredients, would you be more likely to shop there? If you’re told that 60% of people affected by the benefit cap are in work, would you be more likely to oppose it?

But other polling is supposed to be a pure measure of what people currently think. Questions like voting intent and the EU referendum should be in this category.

So for the EU referendum question to show accurately what people think, respondents shouldn’t be shown anything that might influence their response. In an ideal world, they’d only be asked about the EU, and then the poll would finish. But that would be expensive, so we have to accept that the EU question will go in a poll with other questions.

In that case, the other questions respondents see need to be consistent between polls. So if respondents are being influenced by the other questions, at least it’s happening in a comparable way.

But that’s not how YouGov have done it.

The most recent poll, which shows ‘stay in the EU’ ahead by 6pts, asked six questions about Europe before it got to the referendum question. The previous recent high for Europhiles, in December ’11, asked 13 Europe questions before the in/out question. But the poll that showed ‘leave the EU’ the furthest ahead, in May ’12, didn’t ask any EU questions before it got to in/out.

Perhaps these other questions are affecting the result. The latest poll, for example, has several questions about renegotiating Britain’s terms of European membership – so respondents might be thinking of the in/out question in the context of revised terms. That could have prompted a few people to drift into the ‘stay’ camp.

Conclusion: has opinion changed?

There’s a plausible explanation for why opinion about an EU referendum might have changed over the last couple of weeks. As we apparently saw in December ’11, when the UK’s membership is in the news, people think about it more and become a bit less sure about wanting out.

But while this might make intuitive sense, there’s really no good polling evidence for it. The way YouGov have been asking the question has the potential to shift people’s responses in ways that are different from poll to poll. We can’t tell for sure whether it does skew things, but the inconsistent question structure means we equally can’t be certain that opinion really is changing.

I’d like to see YouGov move the in/out question to the start of their questions on the EU. Then we will be able to see what’s really going on with our views on the EU.

Note to British media: climate change denial is NOT increasing

by Leo Barasi     January 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

I’ll begin with two questions:

What proportion of Americans say there is solid evidence that the earth is warming? Is it: a) one quarter; b) one third; c) a half; or d) two thirds?

What has happened to that figure over the last four years? Has it: a) fallen every year; b) stayed about the same; c) risen every year?

Judging by most conversations I have and the coverage of public views about climate change, most people would guess the answer is low and falling.

But here’s the answer, taken from the Pew Research Center’s annual polls: two thirds and rising.

Agreement in the US that the earth is warming is now higher than it’s been at any time since 2008. The research was conducted before Hurricane Sandy, so is probably higher now. Only about half say it’s because of human activities – though that has also increased by a quarter over the last three years.

The debate about public views of climate change has changed in the US over the last few months. A number of polls in the autumn showed that the public is becoming more worried – and this was covered in the media.

But the UK lags behind. This week’s Observer included a powerful editorial, restating the evidence about current and future impacts of climate change. But it spoiled it with the line: “climate change denial is becoming entrenched in the UK, or … our media have become complacent about the issue, or both.”

Everyone I speak to about climate change seems to think this. But, as I showed last year, concern about climate change in the UK is certainly not falling, and is probably increasing.

I don’t know of a single poll that shows that the UK public are currently becoming more sceptical about climate change. The general pattern is instead that there was a one-off increase in doubts around late ’09 , which has been followed by a recovery over the years since then.

This set of YouGov polls is fairly typical:

There’s a debate to be had about whether the media is becoming more doubtful of climate science, though again I suspect the opposite has been true over the last couple of years.

The narrative of rising climate scepticism has become entrenched well past its useful life. It’s time for some climate denial denial.

A longer version of this blogpost is here.

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