Public campaigning and climate change activism have long played a part in legislative and policy reform.

NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been campaigning on climate change issues since the 1980s. Activism started in earnest in the 1990s, and many more campaign groups formed in the 2000s, working and collaborating on climate change.

In recent years climate change has seemed to rise up the public agenda, with new high-profile protests and campaigns being widely reported and catching the attention of the public and politicians.

This Insight examines changes in public attitudes towards climate change and whether climate change activism is also changing.

Has public concern over climate change increased?

The Government’s Public Attitudes Tracker survey has tracked public concern about climate change since 2012.

Results show a gradual rise in concern since 2015, increasing more rapidly from 2018. Those “very concerned” increased from 23% in 2017 to 35% in 2019. Only 19% said they were not very or at all concerned about climate change.

A chart to show how concerned people are about climate change
Source and Image description

Concern amongst younger people

A YouGov survey from early 2020 found a clear pattern by age, with 46% of 18-24 year olds “very concerned” about climate change, compared to 24% of those aged over 65.

This pattern is replicated worldwide. A 2019 Amnesty International survey of 10,000 18-25 year olds across 22 countries found 41% said climate change was one of the most important issues facing the world.

Is concern being translated into action?

Data on this is limited. An Ipsos MORI survey in November 2019 on environmental issues (including climate change) found that in the past two years:

  • 8% had been a member of an environmental group or charity
  • 7% had campaigned about an environmental issue
  • 7% had written a letter or tweet to an MP/councillor

A YouGov survey for Oxfam in December 2019 asked which actions people were likely to take in 2020. Recycling was the most likely action and changing diet the least likely.

A chart to show how likely people would take different actions to reduce their carbon footprint.
Source and Image description

Has climate change campaigning changed?

In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its report on how to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5oC in line with the Paris Agreement.

The report concluded that emissions would have to “decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 [..] reaching net zero around 2050.” The conclusions were reported as “12 years to save the planet” and contributed to some, including the UN Environment Programme, declaring a “climate emergency”.

Public campaigning has long been a part of policy change and while the data on activism is limited, since 2018 there have been a number of high-profile protests and campaigns related to climate change, including Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikes.

This could be seen as a change in tone with an increased sense of urgency, particularly among younger activists who have expressed fear of the climate change impacts expected over their lifetime.

Protests on the streets of London

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a non-violent civil disobedience group formed in the UK in 2018. It states that “disruptive non-violent tactics are the only way to achieve lasting change.” It has twice brought central London to a standstill for days, in April and October 2019. Thousands of people were arrested with policing costs estimated at over £37m by the Met Police.

XR’s demands include that the Government, “tell the truth” about climate change, halt biodiversity loss and reach net zero by 2025. It wants Government policy to be led by a Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice. Whilst strongly criticised for its approach by some, XR has also had support from scientists and doctors.

XR states that is now present in 75 countries.

Greta Thunberg and school strikes

In August 2018, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began her solo school strike for climate action in Stockholm. In December 2019 she was named Time personality of the year.

Friday for Future is now a globally co-ordinated movement of school strikes, bringing together other young campaigners from across the world.

In February 2020 around 15,000 attended a climate strike in Bristol. Participants called for “limiting temperature increases to 1.5oC, climate justice and equity, and listening to the science.” Some have called the strikes irresponsible, but there has also been support for them from parents and teachers and others, including UN Secretary General António Guterres.

An ongoing trend or just part of a bigger picture?

The YouGov survey for Oxfam, in December 2019 found that 61% thought the Government should do more to tackle climate change, with only 26% agreeing what could “reasonably expected to be done” was being done. This is despite UK action to date, including legislating for a net-zero target by 2050.

The next international climate change conference (COP26) will be held in the UK in November 2021. Expectations are a high amongst campaigners for what it should achieve.

There are also calls from different parts of civil society, including business and health experts, for green post Covid-19 recovery plans. Will this be enough, or will there be stronger calls and actions from campaigners as 2030 approaches?

A separate Insight: How does policy change happen? examines the role of MPs.

Further reading

About the authors: Elena Ares is a researcher specialising in fisheries, nature and marine conservation and Paul Bolton is a statistician at the House of Commons Library.