Misinformation Alert: What Britain Thinks

Misinformation Alert: What Britain Thinks
Credit: Elliot Manches 

This month we have new insights on Brits' perception of climate misinformation, thanks to a report launched by Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD) and the Conscious Advertising Network.

  • What's going on? How many Brits believe false statements about climate-related issues, from climate science to energy sources?
  • Who's involved? Who is more susceptible to misinformation statements?
  • How to get ahead. How can we leverage these findings in our climate communications?

Your 'TL:DR' in three key points:

1) Few Brits align with outright climate science denial, but a high proportion believes 'delayist' statements.

2) The most susceptible demographics are men, over 55s, right-wing voters and readers of print newspapers.

3) Brits believe most misinformation statements less than counterparts from other countries.

Read on for more details, plus tips on how to make use of these insights in your communications.

What's going on?

How many Brits believe false statements about climate science, climate action, climate policy, fossil fuels and renewables? 

A third of Brits entertain 'soft denial'

Surveys usually ask whether people believe the climate is changing and whether it is human-caused. The vast majority of Brits respond yes to these questions, including Persuadables.

The new survey by CAAD included another false option, "the climate is changing, partly caused by human actions", and a surprising number of Brits (32%) align with this statement.

This compares with 54% of respondents who say that climate change is "mainly" caused by human actions (true) and 9% denying climate change or human impact at all (false).

The chart below, reproduced from the CAAD report, shows how Brits compare to their counterparts in Australia, Brazil, Germany, India and the United States.

Belief in the existence and cause of climate change across 9,886 adults in six countries.

Brits believe the two false statements less than those in Germany, Australia and the United States, but more than those Brazil and India.

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Brits more likely to believe 'delay' statements over division, denial or doom

Brits were asked if they had seen 13 more false statements about climate science and climate action and if so if they believed them to be true or false.

55% of Brits believe at least one of the 13 false statements is true. While this is high, it is the lowest across all six countries surveyed.

Below we have charted nine of the most seen and most believed statements regarding climate science and climate action.

Here are three takeaways:

  1. The most frequently seen and believed denial statements involve doubt that climate science is a consensus, and that climate change is natural/not human-caused.
  2. 'Delayist' statements are among the most common statements to agree with, including the UK being a world leader in climate action (with the implication being that we don't need to do more), China not doing enough, reducing emissions being a form of domestic self-harm and the possibility that tech alone will save us.
  3. Statements inferring conspiracy ("climate change is a hoax") and doomism ("it's too late to take action") have been seen by many Brits - 57% and 55% respectively. However, just 7% and 6% agree with those statements.
Nine of the most seen and/or most believed false statements on climate science and climate action. Taken from the CAAD survey of 2,029 Brits, October 2022.
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Denial, delay, division, doomism ... what's the difference?
Communications are constantly evolving, and so does the terminology to describe it. For example, as the science became clearer and clearer, self-named "climate sceptics" are now rightly branded "climate (science) deniers".

But there are more subtle forms of misinformation becoming more popular. They seek to delay climate action, divide people against into 'pro-climate' or 'anti'climate', or present the problem as so unfixable there is no point trying ('doomism'). Learn more at our advertising guide on climate misinformation.

Who's involved?

Who is more susceptible to misinformation statements?

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Certain demographics are more likely to believe those most problematic false statements

Further analysis from CAAD provided to ACT Climate Labs reveals what demographic factors influence belief in false statements related to climate change.

Out of the 48 statements in the survey, 17 of the most problematic false statements were selected with a focus on climate denial, conspiracy, and pro-fossil fuel statements.

As you can see in the graph below, certain demographic factors are likely to result in lower susceptibility to climate misinformation: leaning to the left politically, being a woman or being young.

On the other hand, other factors make believing more problematic misinformation statements more likely. These include being a man, being over 55 years old, leaning to the right politically, and - surprisingly enough - using print newspapers as your primary news source.

Average amount of false misinformation statements believed by specific demographics. Based on data adapted from the CAAD survey of 2,029 Brits, October 2022. Image credits: Wocintechchat, Elizeu Dias, Ageing Better, Eye for Ebony, Zane Bolen, Microsoft 365

Similar factors correlate with belief in false statements on renewables, net zero and the energy crisis

Further analysis of statements on other topics revealed that on average:

  • Misinformation on renewables is more believed by men, over 55s and consumers of print news.
  • False statements on net zero are also believed more by men on average.
  • Those who claimed to vote Conservative in 2019 are significantly more likely to believe false statements on renewables, net zero and the energy crisis.

Additionally, many factors do not correlate belief around renewables, net zero or the energy crisis:

  • Voting Labour, Lib Dem, another party, or not voting at all.
  • Having a University degree or not.
  • Belonging to a religion. The exception is atheists who tended to believe fewer false statements on average.

We were unable to study differences between urban/rural, income or region, so cannot say whether these are important factors or not.

How to get ahead 

How can we leverage these findings in our climate communications?

Set the science straight with one simple fact

The CAAD survey revealed that most Brits are not deniers, but many do still believe climate change is only partly caused by humans and that a "significant" number of scientists disagree on climate change. In fact, over 99.9% of climate studies agree that climate change is primarily caused by humans.

  • Try to use this targeted, pithy statement when communicating the science. More information may be overkill for those not regularly exposed to climate communications.  
  • Use visualisations of just how big this consensus is, like the pie chart below. Interactive graphics can also work well to show the sheer scale of one number versus another.
  • Wherever possible, use trusted messengers - the Britain Talks Climate study revealed this is usually ordinary people affected by climate change, local spokespeople, service workers and climate scientists.
When visually represented, 99.9% can seem like a much bigger deal than just the number itself.

For a deeper exploration on Brits and scientific consensus, see our previous misinformation alert.

Reach out to groups susceptible to delay narratives with counter-frames

The people most susceptible to soft denial and climate delay narratives are usually those 'left behind' by traditional climate communications.

To reach beyond the climate bubble and speak to them, paid media is the best way to do this. Based on the survey findings, targeting any one of older people, men, regular readers of print news, or those identifying as right-wing could help shift understanding across the country.

For these specific groups, we recommend moving beyond classic urgency and moral obligation framing. Phrases like 'time is running out' and 'it's the right thing to do'. Instead, try 'what's in it for me?' as a starting point.

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What are frames?
The way a story, issue or argument is presented. The same information can be framed in many different ways. The frame helps us interpret what we see and form our own narrative. Red more at our reframing guide.

Alternative frames could include:

  • Economic frame: Clean energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Starting a transition sooner than later will reduce the taxpayer burden and mean lower bills.
  • Patriotic frame: The UK has made a lot of progress on climate change, but these countries are doing it better. Let's not get left behind.
  • Health frame: Cleaner air and safer jobs are on the horizon if we transition faster.
Further Reading
Misinformation Alert - Cost of Net Zero: all about one of the most common "climate delay" frames in 2022
Audience Insights - Football: Using football could be a way to engage men, who are more susceptible to climate misinformation, in climate conversations
Misinformation Alert - Delayers Piggyback the Energy Crisis: How to communicate the cost of living crisis in relation to clean and dirty energy

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