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05 September 2019

Britons hugely underestimate how hot planet has become and how much plastic waste is in the environment

Misperceptions about climate change and the natural environment are widespread in Britain

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Misperceptions about climate change and the natural environment

Read the research

A new study on misperceptions of climate change and environmental issues by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI shows how much Britain gets wrong about the challenges facing our planet.

The study, which supports today’s paperback publication of The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything by Professor Bobby Duffy of the Policy Institute, also reveals that most of us recognise the seriousness of the threat to the global climate – and that we mostly see the lack of concern as caused by other people, rather than ourselves.

The public’s climate misperceptions

Global warming

  • 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 guess 20 – while one in five people think just five or fewer of the last 22 years are the hottest on record

Plastic waste

The public are 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.


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

Greenhouse gas emissions

  • The public massively underestimate the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions generated globally by electricity and heat production: on average, they guess 21%, when 49% of emissions are actually generated this way.
  • We hugely overestimate the impact of air travel on global greenhouse gases, thinking it contributes 20% of emissions when in reality it’s just 2%.

We’re also very wrong about how much impact different actions have on greenhouse gas emissions:

    • 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, according to a comprehensive academic study.
    • We underestimate the impact of flying: avoiding one transatlantic flight is the third most effective step someone can take to reduce emissions, but only a quarter of the population guess it’s in the top three.
    • 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.

Despite our misperceptions, we do think we’re facing a climate change emergency – but it’s other people that are the problem…

  • 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 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 government to act – and 38% of us say that more hope would mean we ourselves would be more likely to act.

Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute, King’s College London and author of The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, said:

“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. My book on The Perils of Perception shows that 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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