Two in five people in Britain (39%) and the US (38%) think the economic costs of climate change will be greater than the cost of efforts to reduce it, according to a new study to mark the 2022 Fulbright Distinguished Lecture by John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
This compares with 17% of the British public and 27% of Americans who take the opposite view, while 20% in Britain and 15% in the US think there will be little difference.
The research, from the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos, finds that opinions vary by political affiliation, particularly in the US, with Democrats (49%) far more likely than Republicans (28%) to say climate change will have a bigger economic impact than actions to address it.
Yet despite this being the predominant view in both nations, opinions vary on green investment. In Britain, there is a clearer consensus in favour, with the public more likely to disagree (42%) than agree (30%) that now is not the right time to be investing in renewable energy and other measures to reduce climate change given the tough economic conditions.
By contrast, the US is relatively split: 43% say we shouldn’t be investing in climate change because of the current state of the economy, compared with 37% who disagree with this view.
The study, which was carried out to mark Special Envoy Kerry’s lecture, held at King’s College London on Friday 9 December, also looks at attitudes towards national and international responses to climate change, as well as people’s perceptions of the challenge.
What developed nations owe on climate change
Majorities in both the US (58%) and Britain (52%) agree it’s right that developed countries who have contributed most to the climate emergency by producing the most carbon emissions should pay more to solve the problem.
But there is more of a difference in views on whether developed countries such as their own are being asked to sacrifice too much in order to tackle climate change, with the British public (32%) less likely than the US public (43%) to feel this is the case.
Yet on this question, the political divide in views is bigger in Britain than in the US: Conservative voters (50%) are more than twice as likely as Labour voters (22%) to agree that developed countries are being asked to sacrifice too much in the fight against climate change. There is a similar, but smaller, split in the US, where 57% of Republicans agree with this view, compared with 41% of Democrats.
In Britain, all age groups are more inclined to disagree than agree that developed countries are being asked to make too great a sacrifice – except 55- to 75-year-olds, 41% of whom agree with this view and 29% of whom disagree.
National and international responses to the climate crisis
Almost eight in 10 people in Britain (79%) and US (76%) agree we can’t fully tackle climate change unless all countries work together, and around seven in 10 think we should work with other nations on this challenge even where they have conflicting ideologies (72% US vs 73% GB).
Eight in 10 in both countries also see businesses and the private sector as having just as important a role in solving climate change as governments (79% in both US and GB).
On COP27, which took place last month, Britons are much more sceptical that it will lead to change, with 26% thinking it’s at least fairly likely that the commitments made there will result in action – far lower than the 40% of the US public who share this opinion.
Britons also have less confidence that, if the commitments agreed are COP27 are actually carried out, they will make a real difference to tackling climate change. 32% of the British public say they’re very or fairly confident of this, compared with 41% of those in the US.
Climate leadership on the world stage
In the US, 48% agree their country is a world leader in the fight against climate change – higher than the 35% who feel this way in Britain.
By 58% to 47%, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think the US is a world leader on this issue, but in Britain, the difference in views between the two main parties is far greater, with Conservative voters (54%) twice as likely as Labour voters (27%) to see the nation as a global leader on climate change.
Perceptions of the climate crisis
39% of the US public agree there are more important things to do in life than think about climate change, compared with 24% who say the same in Britain. 35% and 49% respectively disagree with this view.
In the US, Republicans (50%) are more likely than Democrats (37%) to agree that there are more important things to do in life than think about climate change. There is a similar partisan split in Britain, where 32% of Conservative voters agree with this view, compared with 21% of Labour voters (though more on both sides disagree).
More generally, Americans are also more fatalistic: 27% say there is no point in changing their behaviour to tackle climate change because it won’t make any difference anyway, while 19% of Britons agree with this view.
But the majority of people in both Britain and the US do seem to understand the dire risks that climate change presents, with most in each nation believing that various scientific predictions about climate change at least fairly likely to occur – although only a minority in each country think they are certain or very likely to.
For example, 62% of the US public think it’s at least fairly likely that by 2050, more than 140 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America will have to leave their homes because of conflict over food and water insecurity and climate-driven natural disaster – but a smaller proportion, 30%, think this is certain or very likely to occur.
Similarly, 63% of people in Britain say it’s at least fairly likely that a warmer climate will lead to an additional 250,000 people around the world dying of diseases including malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and heat exposure each year between 2030 and 2050, with 29% giving this at a higher likelihood of coming to pass.
Frans Berkhout, professor of environment, society and climate at King's College London, said:
“We know the costs of inaction on climate change will be devastating – not just environmentally, but economically too. The public in Britain and the US recognise this, with people in both nations most likely to say that the economic impact of climate will be greater than the cost of measures to reduce it. But at the same time, this doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire to act: Americans are relatively divided on whether now is the right time to be investing in renewable energy and other measures given the economy is under strain, although there is a clearer view in favour of such action in Britain.
“But there is much in common in British and US public opinion on climate change, especially in recognition of its seriousness and the need for international cooperation. The economic contribution that richer countries should make to poorer nations is another major challenge – one that was front and centre at COP27 – and it’s encouraging that majorities in both the US and Britain think it’s right that developed nations pay more to tackle climate change, even if minorities still think we’re being asked to sacrifice too much.”
Rachel Brisley, head of energy and environment at Ipsos said:
“These findings identify similar positive messages from both countries around supporting green investment and the need for countries to work together to tackle climate change, but also a substantial majority in both countries that don’t consider climate change a priority. Of particular concern is the view that commitments made at COP27 will not result in action that has lasting effects, with Britons being more cynical than Americans on this point. Action is needed now but with a lack of belief in political leaders to deliver change, the public is not convinced that this action will be taken.”
Maria Balinska, executive director of the US-UK Fulbright Commission, said:
“We are heartened that overwhelming majorities on both sides of the Atlantic agree all countries need to work together to deal with the challenge of climate change. One of the US-UK Fulbright Commission’s key strategic objectives is to support our global community to tackle together the challenges we face as a planet. Fulbrighters worldwide – from scientists to entrepreneurs and theatre directors – are working to address the climate emergency. Our new Global Challenges Teaching Awards promote digital innovation in the teaching of key issues while bringing together classrooms in the UK and the US to share knowledge and perspectives.”
These are the results of an online survey conducted by Ipsos in Britain and the US. Between 18 and 21 November 2022, Ipsos interviewed a total of 1,084 people aged 16-75 in Great Britain and 1,100 aged 18-75 in the US. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population. All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error.