Irish public shows strong support for political action on climate, conference told

Major international survey shows Irish people to be among the most informed on crisis

Irish people say they are informed about climate change and display strong support for political action in addressing it, according to a major international survey. File photograph: Greenpeace/PA Wire

Irish people say they are informed about climate change and display strong support for political action in addressing it, according to a major international survey. File photograph: Greenpeace/PA Wire

 

Irish people say they are informed about climate change and display strong support for political action in addressing it, according to a major international survey to be published later this year.

Some 73 per cent of Irish respondents in the survey say they know “a lot or a moderate amount about climate change” – one of the highest levels for this found in 33 countries and territories surveyed, Dr Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2021 Climate Change Conference on Thursday.

The Irish end of the survey, carried out by Yale with the EPA, will act as a mirror to Irish society, reflecting both attitudes to the climate crisis and what Irish people are willing to do in response to it, he added.

Dr Leiserowitz said, however, that only 21 per cent of Irish respondents say they know a lot about climate change, while 77 per cent want more information, which needed to be provided by government, business and civil society.

Irish people also display a high level of knowledge on the issue compared with other countries, indicated by 58 per cent of respondents here knowing climate change is caused by human activity rather than natural changes.

Of more concern, he said, was the worry factor: only 30 per cent of Irish respondents were “very worried” about climate change, with many seeing the threat “as relatively distant in time and space”.

On a more positive note, he said, 75 per cent say climate action should be a high priority for the Government – what he said was “strong public permission to respond accordingly” – and 73 per cent believe current levels of fossil fuel use needed to be curbed.

Public sentiment and behaviour will collectively enable enormous climate action to happen or will constrain it, Dr Leiserowitz said. Of critical importance was understanding there was no single viewpoint on climate change, he said.

Their research in US showed there was six types of audience ranging from “the alarmed”, who were convinced it was happening and supported urgent action, to the dismissive, who were in denial it was happening, calling it a hoax – the latter being a small but “loud 8 per cent”.

In Ireland 70 per cent are “alarmed or concerned”, wanting to know what they can do in relation to climate change, but 15 per cent classify themselves as “cautious” and are sitting on the fence, while 13 per cent are “doubtful”, ie don’t think it’s real, or if it is, it’s a natural phenomenon, he said.

Human behaviour

Prof Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute said that “we are not even at first base in understanding human behaviour and how behavioural science needs to be used in addressing climate change”.

“We have to change how we think about the problem,” he believed.

A series of factors had to be taken into account, such as human beings’ innate resistance to change “unless they have to”, as well as the issue of convenience and day-to-day lifestyle demands, including people’s wish to enjoy themselves.

The most important failure thus far was not linking behavioural science to “huge economic levers” to effect large-scale and sustained change, he said. This inevitably required stronger regulation, “more bans, a huge shift to ‘the polluter pays’ principle” and fossils fuels becoming prohibitively expensive, he insisted.

Getting from A to B – where the polluter pays – necessitated determining how much it will all cost, and immediately raised ethical issues in relation to who bears the cost and who gets supported, Prof Lunn said. Because the cost was going to be massive, “the fairness of it” had to be sorted out.

Prof Anna Davies of Trinity College Dublin said effective climate action required much more than merely responding to “snapshots of public opinion”.

She said the debate could not be reduced to “individual acts of consumption”, which in any event would be insufficient to meet the challenges facing the world.

While the public was part of the solution, more powerful actors had to play a key role in helping people to embrace low-carbon actions, she said, noting that capacity to act within communities was unevenly distributed, notably in the most deprived areas.