Higher support for carbon tax after 10-minute exposure to facts, ESRI finds

Those believing charges would prompt climate action rose 25% after online quiz

The study also found that while some of the public’s  basic knowledge on climate change is good, gaps remain on more complex aspect. Photograph: iStock

The study also found that while some of the public’s basic knowledge on climate change is good, gaps remain on more complex aspect. Photograph: iStock

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Public support for action on climate change is strengthened by just 10 minutes of exposure to the basic science of an overheating planet, a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has found.

The findings extend to policies that cost households money, notably raising the carbon tax. Those believing the tax would be effective at changing behaviour went up by 25 per cent after participating in a multiple-choice quiz.

In the experiment, a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults undertook the short online climate quiz covering the basic causes of climate change, its impacts and how behaviours affect it.

Half of the sample – selected at random – were shown the correct answers, while the other half were not. Subsequently, those who saw the answers stated higher support for change.

After seeing the answers to the 10-minute quiz, “almost twice as many wanted the carbon tax increased as wanted to see it decreased”, according to Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI’s behavioural research unit.

Seeing the answers also boosted people’s intentions to engage in high-impact pro-environmental actions, such as taking fewer flights, retrofitting their home or reducing meat intake. However, this effect was smaller than the effect on support for stronger climate mitigation policy.

By using the randomised experiment, he confirmed, they can be sure the effects were caused by reading the scientific answers “and not other factors, such as simply being asked to think about the climate issue or to answer questions about it”.

Knowledge gaps

The study is also the first to measure public comprehension of climate change in Ireland. It found that while some basic knowledge is good, gaps remain on more complex aspects, he said.

Some 90 per cent of people, however, are aware that climate change is caused by human activity – a high finding by international standards. Most people can identify forms of energy generation and transport that produce emissions.

The findings suggest climate change ranks as the third most important issue facing people in Ireland, after housing and healthcare.

The impact of buying local and organic food on reducing emissions is overestimated by most people – 74 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively – while 66 per cent underestimate the impact of switching to a plant-based diet.

Half the population underestimate Ireland’s per-person emissions compared with the rest of the EU – Irish per capita emissions are 17 per cent above the EU average and among the highest of any member state.

One-in-three are not aware the agriculture sector is a primary contributor of emissions, with little difference between those living in urban and rural areas.

“It’s striking how many people changed their mind on the carbon tax when learning about the science of climate change for just 10 minutes,” Dr Timmons added.

“While acceptance of human-caused climate change is high, there are some gaps in knowledge and people were clearly affected by the information. They became more supportive of stronger climate policy and more willing to engage in high-impact behaviours,” he confirmed.

Climate policies

The most promising aspect of the findings was willingness to support effective climate policies; “once they learned more. . . they were not struck in ideology”, he said.

Worry was the strongest “predictor” in supporting action. Once the majority were clued in, they were strongly in favour of measures to counter climate change, but the minority would be more difficult to win over, Dr Timmons suggested.

Asked what was the message for politicians, he cited the strength of public support for action, while people are open to more information. Where they get it is a separate issue, he noted, with separate Environmental Protection Agency research showing people trust scientists most.

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