Study reveals public’s misperceptions on environmental issues

A new study on misperceptions of environmental issues shows how much Britain gets wrong about the challenges facing the planet.

The study, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, reveals the public’s misconceptions about green issues, from climate change, to plastic and wildlife.

The study found that 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%; and 49% is still in the environment in landfill or as litter, when the true figure is 79%.

On greenhouse gas emissions the public “massively underestimate” the percentage of emissions generated globally by electricity and heat production: on average, they guess 21%, when 49% of emissions are actually generated this way.

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

They also hugely overestimate the impact of air travel on global greenhouse gases, thinking it contributes 20% of emissions when in reality it’s just 2%.

The study found they were also very wrong about how much impact different actions have on greenhouse gas emissions.

They particularly overestimated the impact of recycling: 52% think it’s one of the top three most effective steps we can take to tackle climate change, when, according to the study, it’s the seventh most effective step.

On global warming, on average, those surveyed guessed 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.


The study 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.

Professor Bobby Duffy 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.”

Agree or disagree

The survey found that most (69%) reject US president Donald Trump’s claimed past assertion that “global warming is an expensive hoax”, including 50% who strongly disagree. However, one in eight do agree (12%).

Most also agree with the UK Parliament declaration that we’re facing a “climate change emergency” (67% agree), although again, 11% do not agree.

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

Six in ten (62%) 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% say that more hope would mean we ourselves would be more likely to act.

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