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Britons hugely underestimate climate change

Misconceptions about climate change and the natural environment are widespread in Britain. While most of us recognise the seriousness of the threat, a new study reveals that we mostly blame other people, rather than ourselves for climate change.

The study, 'Misperceptions about climate change and the natural environment' reveals that we underestimate how record-breaking global temperatures now are by assuming 12 of the last 22 years are among the hottest 20 on record since 1850. But in fact, all 20 hottest years have been in the last 22.

On average, we guess that just 12 of the 20 hottest years on record were in the last 22 years when the actual data shows that all 20 of the hottest years have come in this period.

Only a quarter of the public correctly guesses 20 - while one in five people think just five or fewer of the last 22 years are the hottest on record.

It is vital to understand public misperceptions about climate change and the natural environment – but not just so that we can bombard people with more information. – Professor Bobby Duffy, The Policy Institute

Facts and figures


We hugely overestimate how much plastic has been recycled thinking a quarter of all plastic waste (26%) is recycled when it’s actually just 9%. In fact, 79% of all plastic is still in the environment when we assume it’s around half (49%). The public is very wrong about what has happened to the 6.3 billion tonnes of plastic waste that has been created globally. Britons’ average guesses are that:

  • 26% is recycled, almost three times the reality of just 9%.
  • 25% is incinerated, double the reality of 12%.
  • 49% is still in the environment in landfill or as litter, when 79% is actually left like this.
assorted plastic debris and glass bottles on sandy surface


Only a third of people correctly guess that animal populations have declined by 60% since 1970. Only a third (33%) of the public correctly think that the population sizes of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles in the world have fallen by 60% since 1970, which is the WWF estimate. However, just 7% think populations have stayed about the same.

Air travel

We hugely overestimate the impact of air travel on global greenhouse gases but massively underestimate the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions generated by electricity and heat production which are 49%. Britons assume air travel contributes 20% of global greenhouse gases when it’s only 2%. Yet we don’t realise how much skipping just one transatlantic flight would save in greenhouse gases, while overestimating the impact of recycling.

silhouette of man holding luggage inside airport


We particularly overestimate the impact of recycling: 52% think it’s one of the top three most effective steps we can take to tackle climate change when in reality it’s the seventh most effective step. However, having one fewer child is the most effective step, but just 21% put this in the top three, meaning the public rank it seventh overall.

Yes, we are facing a climate change emergency

But despite our misconceptions, we do think we’re facing a climate change emergency though it’s other people who are to blame. That’s why most of us (69%) reject Donald Trump’s past assertion that “global warming is an expensive hoax”, including 50% who strongly disagree. However, one in eight people do agree (12%).

And most of us agree with the UK Parliament declaration that we’re facing a climate change emergency (67% agree), although again, 11% do not agree.
We think other people are not worried enough about climate change (73% agree) – but only 16% of us say we’re not worried enough ourselves.

Only one in five of us (20%) think it’s too late or too difficult to prevent a climate change emergency, but we think that half of the public in general (49%) believe this is the case.

Six in ten (62%) of us believe that if other people had more hope that we could prevent a climate change emergency, they would change their lifestyles or urge the government to act – and 38% of us say that more hope would mean we ourselves would be more likely to act.

Professor Bobby Duffy added, "We can’t just provide facts and expect people to hear them and act, regardless of how extraordinary those facts are. But it’s just as naïve to believe we know the right emotional buttons to push we don’t understand enough about how fear, hope and a sense of efficacy interact in motivating action in different individuals.

“A little more understanding of the scale of the issues, the most effective actions we can take and just how normal and widespread concern has become couldn’t hurt.”

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