As the threat of climate change becomes ever clearer, the UK, along with countries across the world, has committed to tackling the climate emergency. We currently emit around 450 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year (CO2 equivalent), or around 7 tonnes per person. The government is committed to cutting these emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, and 100 per cent – or net zero – by 2050.
Unlike our decarbonisation to date, which has been largely achieved by cutting emissions from electricity generation, meeting our future targets will have direct impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people across the country. This means that building a long-term and sustainable political coalition over time will be crucial to delivery of the net zero target.
While climate change has moved up the political agenda, and all the major parties are committed to delivering net zero, we are still in the early stages of understanding how the politics of climate change will evolve – and, crucially, how a political coalition can be built and maintained.
Our research explores voter attitudes and values. It shows that, on the one hand, politicians can be confident there is a strong and sustained desire for climate action:
Concern about climate change is at record levels, and sustained over time.
Climate change is increasingly important for voters in comparison with other issues.
Concern is increasing across all demographics: The level of concern is not just high but increasing across age groups, income levels, and urban and rural areas, while the gaps between different demographics are closing. We see no evidence for polarisation.
But this is not the whole picture. We also find that:
Public opinion varies most in terms of ‘open-closed’ values – socially conservative or ‘closed’ voters tend to be much less supportive of action on climate change than more socially liberal ‘open’ voters, echoing the Leave/Remain split in the Brexit referendum. Differences on left to right economic views are much less significant.
Party identification has been shifting to more starkly reflect the open-closed divide, with the Conservative Party base increasingly comprising voters with closed values, and the Labour base more heavily open.
This means the new dividing lines of British politics threaten the development of a long-term political coalition to support the action needed for net zero. Like the uneasy consensus around EU membership within the platforms of the main parties before the EU referendum, the consensus around climate change is vulnerable to challenge.
We conclude from these insights that the development of a long-term political coalition to support the action needed for net zero is under threat.
While there is broad support across demographics for accelerated action in support of net zero, this apparent consensus is fragile. As the Labour and Conservative Party bases become more aligned with open and closed values respectively, they may be tempted to play to those bases. Socially conservative, former Labour voters represented the strongest switchers to the Conservatives in the 2019 election, handing them a slew of Labour seats across the North. The concerns of those voters will therefore loom large in the minds of Conservative strategists.
In a reflection of that same shift, Labour’s voter base has become more open or socially liberal. The pull of this generally young and politically engaged base risks pulling Labour policy in a direction that accentuates the values divide. And unless politicians can frame the action and policies needed in a language that appeals to both open and closed voters, there is a risk of the current fragile consensus falling apart, and a divisive climate culture war emerging in the UK.
So far, advocates of ambitious climate policy have often focused on issues of economic justice – often referred to as the ‘just transition’ – or moral arguments about global responsibility. This framing echoes the Brexit debate, where the unsuccessful Remain campaign focused on economic issues, in contrast to the Leave campaign’s appeal to values.
Allowing attitudes to climate action to fracture in a similar way risks leaving the field open for climate change to become a divisive party-political issue, and for populist leaders to seize the debate. Again, this echoes the longer-term trend of the Brexit debate, where a fragile consensus of the main parties in favour of EU membership was exploded after 2015.
To address this, political leaders need to strengthen voters’ understanding of what net zero means; to design and communicate policies in ways that appeal to voters with different values; to create a strong, patriotic sense of national mission, but with local ownership of the solutions; and to focus on growth and jobs in a way that is meaningful and visible. In doing so, they need to acknowledge fears about the costs and difficulties of this epochal transition – assuring citizens in parts of the country that have suffered from past economic transitions that we have learned from the mistakes of the past and that the net zero transition will be inclusive and fair.
It will not be enough to rely simply on moral persuasion that action on climate is the right thing to do, nor convince people with more immediate daily concerns using data and forecasts. Getting this right – developing a unifying politics of the environment that speaks to the concerns of the large bulk of the electorate – is perhaps the most important long-term political challenge of our time.
Tackling climate change is our greatest challenge. In response to the escalating threat, the UK is committed to net zero emissions by 2050.
Unlike the changes to date – which have mainly involved the decarbonisation of our electricity generation – the net zero transition will impact on every aspect of our lives and livelihoods. That transition cannot and should not happen on the quiet. It must not aim to rely on passive consent; it needs active support, maintained over decades and across the main political parties. A wide and sustained coalition of support for action will be crucial, and it will only be achieved by making climate politics a unifying agenda rather than a divisive one.
There is no doubt climate change has risen up the political agenda in the past five years, which is reflected in the major parties’ headline positions. In the 2017 election, no party was committed to net zero – indeed, none of their manifestos even mentioned the phrase. By 2019, around 95 per cent of voters supported parties committed to delivering net zero – it was one of six key commitments in the Conservatives’ manifesto while the Labour manifesto devoted its first chapter to the “green industrial revolution”.
But this apparent consensus should be cause for reflection, not complacency. Climate change is an increasingly salient issue for voters but it would be naive to suggest it is the defining consideration in voters’ political attitudes and ballot box decisions. The changes to date have not impacted voters’ lives in a significant way. And the framing of climate change and net zero in UK politics has tended towards the win-win while shying away from the politically challenging changes that net zero requires.
Where those choices begin to be made, we see the seeds of concern. While politicians have talked a good game, they have often backed away when confronted with tough political choices. It was only a few short years between David Cameron hugging a husky on a trip to the Arctic to allegedly instructing his ministers to “get rid of the green crap”. And more recently, the much-trumpeted commitment to a green recovery from Covid-19 has, so far, not been backed with significant funding as other issues are prioritised. Planning decisions on high-carbon infrastructure are politically controversial. And increases to carbon taxes, such as fuel duty, continue to be perceived as politically toxic.
Beyond the climate debate, British politics is going through a realignment. The 2019 election changed the main parties’ voter bases and parliamentary centres of gravity. In particular, the Conservative conquest of the so-called Red Wall seats, and desire to hold onto them, will influence the political calculus around climate policy in ways that are hard to predict.
Internationally, we see populist parties seeking to make climate change a dividing line in the so-called culture war. The Dutch PVV, German AfD and US Republican parties are making opposition to climate action a key plank of a populist platform. The gilets jaunes movement in France demonstrates the risk of a backlash if climate policies are applied in a way perceived to be unfair. And while in the UK a rejection of climate science is no longer a mainstream position, we see opposition at local level to low-traffic neighbourhoods and net zero electricity infrastructure, while some populist leaders have long-standing opposition to policies that reduce emissions.
So, the question that UK political leaders must wrestle with is: Can I build and maintain an electorally sustainable coalition to support the changes that net zero requires?
There is extensive work looking at climate attitudes at a particular snapshot in time – but much less on how deep and sustained the growing levels of concern are, and what that means for effective climate policy. And there has been little exploration of how climate views correlate with people’s underlying world views, and the values that underpin electoral coalitions on major issues. This report seeks to address that gap and draw out the implications for how policymakers should respond.
There is plenty of data showing that the British public is concerned about climate change – now. But for politicians to commit to the sustained action required to reach net zero, they need to be confident that concern and desire for action can be sustained over time.
The percentage of those who see climate change as a major threat has increased over time, rising rapidly in recent years. To get a sense of how responses have changed in the long run, we use a question from the Pew Global Attitudes Tracker that asks respondents: “How much of a threat is global climate change to your country?” As recently as 2010, the gap between answers on whether climate change is a minor or major threat was as low as five points – suggesting that the economic downturn around 2010 had a substantial impact on concern about climate change. But in the following eight years, that gap increased ninefold to 44 points.
To gauge more recent concern, we use a question from the Public Attitudes Tracker of the UK Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)[_] that asks respondents: “How concerned, if at all, are you about climate change, sometimes referred to as ‘global warming.’” Concern has steadily increased since 2012. The key point here is how the post-Covid-19 trend compares to the post-financial crisis trend. The difference in trend compared to the financial crisis is striking: after a slight dip in concern at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, concern about climate change continued to increase. While this doesn’t guarantee that concern will be maintained, it is notable that the rapid fall we saw in 2008 doesn’t seem to have been replicated in 2020.
Level of concern about climate change
Source: Pew Global Attitudes, BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker
What can we conclude from this? Politicians can be confident that a large proportion of the public – more than 80 per cent and up to twice as many as a decade ago – are concerned about climate change. They can be confident that concern is sustained. And they can be increasingly sure that public concern is robust to factors such as economic downturns and wider crises. Climate change is here to stay as a political issue.
Being asked about climate in isolation is one thing but a key consideration for politicians is how heavily it weighs in voters’ minds compared to other issues.
The BEIS survey includes a question asking voters what they feel “represents the biggest challenge that Britain is facing today”, with climate change as one of nine responses.[_] The British Election Survey (BES)[_] asks: “Has environmental protection gone too far?” We create two plots, one for the percentage who see climate change as one of the three biggest challenges and a second for those who think that climate change protection hasn’t gone far enough.
For both data sets, we see the importance of climate change increasing when compared to other issues.
The percentage who see it as one of the three biggest challenges has increased by almost 250 per cent – from about one tenth to almost a quarter of respondents. Moreover, BEIS only asked these questions throughout 2018. If we make the reasonable assumption that the trends in these answers were consistent with those in the other climate change questions, it is likely that approximately one-third of respondents would note climate change as one of the three biggest challenges if this question was asked now.
And we see a similar trend in the BES data: The percentage of people who thought that environmental protection had not gone far enough increased from about 40 per cent in 2014 to 60 per cent in 2019. Not only is climate change a significant concern for the majority of the electorate, it is also now a mainstream issue when compared to other areas.
Importance of climate change/environmental protection
Source: BES, BEIS Public Attitudes Survey
If rising concern about climate is concentrated in certain parts of the electorate, this will of course influence decision-makers’ views about how and whether to prioritise it. And parties’ priorities will skew according to the composition of their current and targeted voter base.
Using BEIS data, we can break out responses to key questions, including our question about climate change concern and a second question about whether you think that climate change exists and, if so, whether it is caused primarily by human or natural activity. We analyse responses by age, education, income and whether you live in an urban or rural area.
The received wisdom has been that climate change is principally a concern of young, middle-class, urban voters – and the membership of groups like Extinction Rebellion has aligned with that preconception.
But while this may have been true in the past, it isn’t any more. Concern is increasing across all groups – every single demographic has seen an increase in concern of at least 10 per cent over the period.
Perhaps more importantly, increases have been greatest in those groups where concern was lowest a decade ago. If we look at age, those under 34 are more likely to be concerned about climate change than those over 65 but concern increased more in the latter group than the former between 2012 and 2020, reaching its peak level after Covid-19. Put another way, in 2013, under 34s were 15 per cent more likely to be concerned than those over 65. That gap had closed to 4 per cent by November 2020.
We see the same trend when looking at income levels: The gap across income groups has narrowed in the most recent waves as the increase in concern among lower-income groups has been greater since 2012.
When we look at urban and rural voters, we find the preconception that climate is principally an urban concern is not borne out by the data – there is minimal difference in climate change concern between urban and rural respondents.
As we saw above, we see a dip in concern for most demographic groups in the May 2020 survey wave. But these dips had been largely recovered by the subsequent August 2020 survey wave and by November, the pre-Covid upward trends had been largely re-established.
Concern about climate change
Source: BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker
Concern about climate change is no longer an issue confined to urban, wealthy, highly educated or young voters. Concern is shared, and rising, across all demographic groups. Nor is it the case that certain demographics are unpersuadable. Indeed, those demographic groups least concerned about climate action a decade ago have in many cases moved the furthest since. Building a sustainable electoral coalition is likely to require a commitment to action on climate change.
Political attitudes are correlated with demographic categories, but they are not reducible to them – and there is significant variation in political attitudes among the demographic groups. When we think about political coalitions within parties, it is often more insightful to consider voters’ underlying values and how they correlate with their views on any given issue.
While we have seen that all demographic groups have become more concerned about climate change and more likely to believe that climate change is caused largely by human action, we start to see different trends if we break responses down by political attitudes and party identification rather than demographic categories.
Traditionally, voter behaviour has principally been considered on an economic basis, which aligns closely with our understanding of left and right. But following the EU referendum, there has been increasing analysis of voters’ views on a values spectrum, from socially liberal open views to socially conservative closed ones. Sorting voters using the latter approach aligns closely with the behaviour of Remain and Leave voters in the EU referendum – and, increasingly, their identification with the Labour and Conservative parties.
We generate two scales each from five questions in the BES: an open-closed scale[_] of social attitudes and a left-right scale of economic attitudes.[_] In addition to the question about whether environmental protection has gone too far, the BES asks a question about whether climate change is primarily natural or caused by human activities, and one that asks whether we should prioritise environmental protection or economic growth.
We also explored how the open-closed and left-right divides on climate change questions compared to their divide on Brexit attitudes. For this analysis, we used data from wave 20 of the BES, conducted in June 2020.
On the left-right scale, we see some differences for views on climate change – those with economic values on the left are more likely to see climate change as mostly or entirely caused by human activity than those on the right – but only by around 14 per cent.
But there is much starker difference on the open-closed scale. Those with open views are more likely to see climate change as caused by human action by almost 40 per cent – one of the largest divides in the data. That gap is increasing in the most recent data.
Belief that climate change is mostly/entirely caused by human activity, open vs closed
Belief that climate change is mostly/entirely caused by human activity, left vs right
We also analysed the attitude changes of individuals about whether environmental protection has gone too far and whether we should privilege economic growth over environmental protection between 2014 and 2020. We used a logistic regression to identify the key explanatory characteristics associated with those changing attitudes during this period. As well as an indicator for their position on the open-closed dimension, the model included other basic covariates including their left-right positioning, age, education and income.
We found that open-closed attitudes, meaning higher scores on the open-closed scale, consistently predict attitude shifts on these questions, with those who have closed attitudes being only 59 per cent and 76 per cent as likely for the two questions respectively to shift to favouring environmental protection as those with open attitudes. None of the control variables consistently predict attitude shifts on these questions.
In this respect, climate change and environmental attitudes are similar to the Leave or Remain divide, which is much more about open-closed attitudes than left-right ones. We can see these divides in the following two figures, which present how anti- and pro-environmental stances versus Leave or Remain supporters vary from the average survey respondent in open-closed versus left-right attitudes.
Open-Closed: environment or growth, Leave or Remain (2020)
Left-Right: environment or growth, Leave or Remain (2020)
This analysis suggests that while the traditional left-right split is important for climate, far more relevant is the difference of views on an open-closed basis; and that the political debate on climate change is likely to be heavily values-driven, echoing the debate on EU membership and at risk of becoming just as divisive.
Ultimately, the success of climate policies will depend in large part on the extent to which political parties commit to action, and the level of consensus across those parties. If all parties are committed to high ambition, the risks of stark political divides (and the much-discussed culture war) are much smaller.
Since 2016, as other researchers – including Maria Sobolewska, Rob Ford and Paula Surridge – have highlighted, voters have sorted more clearly on open-closed lines. This shift was accelerated by the EU referendum and is reflected in the rapid evolution of the parties’ voter bases.
Figures 11 and 12 plot the share of Conservative and Labour supporters holding open-middle-closed/left-centre-right attitudes. We can see from analysis of voters identifying with the Conservatives and Labour that there is a profound divide on an open-closed basis. Conservative voters are almost six times more likely to have closed values; Labour Party supporters are more than twice as likely to have open values.
Equally importantly, that composition of party bases reflects a rapid shift in their electoral coalitions. Labour’s electoral coalition has shifted from being drawn from those with closed values, to being heavily based on those with open values. In 2015 and 2016, Labour Party supporters were almost evenly divided into the three categories of the open-closed divide. This has changed dramatically since then, with the percentage of supporters holding closed attitudes declining to less than 50 per cent of its original share.
Open-closed attitudes among Conservatives
Open-closed attitudes among Labour supporters
Our analysis of the BES data also shows that the key predictor of a voter switching from Labour to the Conservatives during the period between 2015 and 2019 was their positioning on the values spectrum. In our sample, 8.6 per cent of Labour supporters switched to supporting the Conservatives during this time. Again, we used logistic regression to predict party switching as a function of open-closed attitudes, left-right attitudes, age, education and income.
We found that higher scores on the open-closed scale were associated with an individual being almost twice as likely to make this switch. We found no statistically significant association between the other variables and respondents’ propensity to switch from Labour to the Conservatives.
As we found above, those who are concerned and sceptical about climate change are divided more by open-closed values than left-right economic positions. And as we can see below, the parties have been moving towards the respective poles of these attitudes, raising concerns about the politicisation of climate change policy on this dimension. We see neither as much party movement nor as much division on left-right attitudes.
Left-Right: environment or growth, parties
Open-Closed: environment or growth, parties
While the open-closed divide in climate change attitudes doesn’t appear to have increased significantly over the past few years, the sorting of individuals into political parties by open-closed attitudes has. And while concern about climate change is increasing among both those with open and closed attitudes, there’s still a large gap in the level of concern between these groups. Attitudes on climate change may not be polarising, but open-closed attitudes are across the two major parties. Because people often take their position cues on policy issues from parties and politicians, this raises the danger of future polarisation on climate change if the Conservatives begin to associate climate change with other closed issues.
Furthermore, parties on the left have often focused arguments about net zero on issues of social justice and the ‘just transition’. This doesn’t take sufficient account of the fact that views on climate align more closely to views on issues such as Brexit – and policy development and communication need to be seen through that lens.
So, what does this mean to the politics of climate change?
While the high levels of sustained concern across all demographics might imply that both parties will want to focus on ambitious climate action, the analysis based on values means we should be cautious in applying that conclusion.
This analysis contains important lessons on climate policy for both main parties. Dividing lines on climate are similar to those that characterised Brexit – with open-closed more predictive of a voter’s views. EU membership was, of course, the subject of a consensus between the main political parties for decades until the referendum in 2016 prompted the main parties to rapidly shift their positions. From 2015, when all major parties supported EU membership, none of them, in 2021, support rejoining the EU, with the exception of the SNP.
Climate change policy could be vulnerable to a similarly rapid change – in particular because the political battleground will, in large part, be based around Labour persuading those with closed values to return to the party; and the Conservatives retaining them.
For Labour, the challenge will be to design climate policies that appeal to the majority of its current voter base – those with open values – while also appealing to a sufficient proportion of closed voters to deliver electoral success. A strategy based around arguments of economic and international justice – important though they are – is unlikely to resonate with voters with more socially conservative views and is therefore vulnerable to failure. They will need to speak to voters beyond their current electoral base, and that means bridging the open-closed divide on climate.
For the Conservatives, the consideration is different. They will need to retain their closed base – and fight off the challenge from Labour for those voters. Having successfully sorted the electorate by values, and built a formidable parliamentary realignment more heavily based around what was the Red Wall, they could be tempted to play on issues that accentuate that divide, and mitigate the risk of being outflanked. Ambitious action on climate change could be high on the list of policies to be sacrificed if playing to that base in a simplistic way.
Our analysis shows that climate concern is high in the UK – and that the truism that this is a young, urban, liberal agenda is not backed by the data. In fact, concern is high at all ages, in all income deciles, in cities and rural areas and at different levels of educational background.
But the data is not telling us this will be easy. While climate is important to voters, it is not a decisive issue for the majority. Voters with more socially conservative closed values are most likely to be sceptical about climate action. The two main parties now have bases that are highly aligned with open and closed values respectively. An approach to tackling climate change that exacerbates these divisions is doomed to failure; and the temptation to make climate action a wedge issue will be significant.
This report has sought to map the politics of climate change and reveal the nature of the terrain. In future work, we will look to apply these insights. But it is nevertheless possible at this stage to sketch out some of the broad implications of what we have found for climate policymaking.
Strengthen public understanding: Commitment to net zero is high but understanding of what it means is low. Policymakers need to develop and implement a strategy for informing the public about what the key causes of emissions are, and how they can play a role in mitigating them.
Framing matters: To meet net zero, it doesn’t matter if voters have different reasons for taking action; it simply matters that they do so. Policymakers need to consider how their policies are framed, and how the rationale for them is communicated – and to do so in a way that unites rather than divides groups with different values.
Patriotism and ownership: To do that, people need to feel that they, their families and their communities are active participants in the transition – not passive recipients or, worse, victims of it. That means a clear sense of national mission being built around it – with a strong narrative of national renewal, economic growth and fairness; and that approaches to tackling climate change need to give people a sense of agency in their own lives and communities. That means ensuring solutions are adapted to local strengths and ways of life, with strong local democratic control over solutions, and local benefits secured.
Gaining not losing: The framing of many questions on climate change in public-polling data reveals a wider truth about perceptions of action on climate change: that the agenda is perceived as one of giving things up, or of losing rather than gaining. Voters are asked whether they are happy to give up economic growth, or international travel, or gas boilers, to save the environment. Policymakers need to ensure that net zero is a gain agenda, with the benefits – quality of life, jobs, warmer homes, health – both articulated and delivered.
Growth and jobs: Public consent and support for climate action are dependent on continued growth and opportunity in the economy. If they are in opposition, political support for growth will trump support for climate action. But a focus on abstract economic arguments, echoing the Remain campaign, is unlikely to work. A successful strategy will require a relentless focus on identifying and exploiting growth opportunities from the low-carbon transition in specific areas and regions, and an emphasis on developing and communicating policies that support growth in areas most vulnerable to the transition – not least given the legacy of previous deindustrialisation in many of those areas.
Fairness: A net zero transition that is fair – and perceived as being fair through an open-closed lens – is central to building the sustainable political coalition required. This goes beyond notions of a ‘just transition’ – fairness needs to apply not just to income group, but to different types of community and segments of society. If there is a perception of “one rule for them, another for me”, or that some areas of the country are being left behind at the expense of others, then consent will be lost, and there will be fertile political ground for those who oppose action. This means careful consideration of how the costs are met, support for those least able to afford them, and the equitable sharing of opportunities and benefits.
While there may appear to be consensus around net zero, that consensus is fragile. The politics of net zero are about to enter a new phase. Delivering policy and strategy that can avoid catastrophic climate change and build a net zero economy is possible – but it requires careful, long-term political strategies that appeal to a broad coalition of voters.
Lead Image: Getty Images
Charts created with Highcharts or original TBI creation unless otherwise credited.