This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Climate change has finally risen up the public agenda. Bold, high-profile activism by Extinction Rebellion, stark warnings from scientists and the call-to-arms of the youth-led Fridays for Future school strikes have been fanned by a surge in media coverage.
Politicians are starting – albeit decades too late – to slowly acknowledge the kinds of plans that might just get us out of this mess. And on the eve of an unprecedented "general strike" for the climate, a clutch of new polls suggest that wider public opinion on climate change may also be entering a new phase.
Polling announced today from the new CAST (Climate Change & Social Transformations) centre finds almost half of the UK public saying they have become more worried about climate change over the past year, with levels of concern reaching new highs in 2019. Reflecting surveys carried out over the spring, in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion actions in central London, the CAST survey finds a clear majority agreeing that we are facing a climate emergency, requiring urgent action.
More unexpectedly, a separate poll announced last week found a third of the British public agreeing with the most radical of Extinction Rebellion's demands: to bring the country’s "net zero" carbon target forward to 2025 from 2050. To put this in perspective, that would mean feeding ourselves, and powering our homes and transport, without releasing any CO2 at all, within six years. And planting a mind-boggling number of trees.
One way of interpreting this finding is as an enormous green flag to politicians to turbo-charge the UK's climate change targets. The faster and further we can push them, creating a fair and just transition towards sustainability, the safer we all will be.
And there are some signs that – in the UK, at least – people are willing to put their money where their mouth is. The CAST data shows a healthy two-thirds majority agreeing that air travel needs to be curbed. Other surveys show that while there doesn't appear to be much support at a national level for completely vegetarian or vegan diets to combat climate change, most agree with the idea of a lower-carbon diet with less meat in it.
It isn't necessarily all encouraging news, though: a recent global poll finds large numbers of people around the world agreeing that climate change will lead to the extinction of the human race – which, although technically possible, remains an outside possibility. While an overdue jolt of fear seems to be a key element in the uptick in public engagement over the last 12 months, the social science is clear that striking a balance between fear and constructive suggestions for how to solve the problem is the right way to go.
In some ways we've been here before: in 2008, ahead of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, and in 2013 after major flooding in the UK, levels of public concern rose but then receded with the flood waters. Without focused campaign and communications work, all this progress could fall away.
But looking across this wave of new surveys and polls, a picture emerges that pretty accurately captures the reality of climate change in 2019: we're worried, we want things to move faster, we don't put much faith in our governments to do the right thing, but we're increasingly prepared to do our bit as individuals and voters.
And although there’'s a long way to go yet, this isn't a bad place for public opinion to be. Campaigners and communicators have a responsibility to keep it that way, translating elevated levels of concern into meaningful action in behaviours and at the ballot box.
Adam Corner is Research Director, Climate Outreach and Associate Director at CAST centre.