The dimensions of public opinion on climate change: belief, issue salience and support for government action
Climate change is a problem that requires urgent attention. In most countries, large sections of the population accept that climate change is happening and that it is a serious problem. Despite this, the political response in many developed nations has so far been inadequate, and emissions continue to climb globally. Some authors have used this apparent lack of policy responsiveness to public preferences as evidence that vested interests have excessive influence over climate change policy. But this perspective does not fully account for the complexity of climate change opinion. For instance, many people who are highly concerned about climate change rank it as a low priority issue compared with issues such as the economy, healthcare and education. Moreover, some people who believe that climate change is happening and is a serious problem do not support government action to address it.
I therefore investigate public opinion on climate change in terms of three dimensions: belief, issue salience and support for government action. Focussing on developed countries, I rely on survey data from Eurobarometer, the New Zealand Election Study and data collected as part of this research project. I investigate the nature of opinions with respect to these three dimensions and examine how opinions vary between individuals and across countries. Furthermore, I investigate the forces that shape climate opinion on these three dimensions, including external influence (such as messages from interest groups), individual characteristics (such as social and political attitudes) and country-level factors (such as country wealth).
I find that belief is high in most developed countries, as is support for government action. However, salience is low in most countries, particularly in the less wealthy developed countries. Political orientation and other social attitudes relate positively to belief, issue salience and support for government action, although the relationships tend to be stronger for salience. By investigating the factors that shape climate opinion in different dimensions, this study contributes to knowledge of why people hold particular climate views. Moreover, my examination of the complexity of public opinion on climate change in terms of belief, issue salience and support for government action sheds light on why the political response to climate change has been ineffective in many countries.