Our friends at WWF recently commissioned an opinion poll and reporti by market research company Demos, which has been given the title “The Climate Consensus”, since that is what it seeks to persuade us exists. So much so that it led to a couple of articles in the Guardian, the most recent of whichii has the arresting headline “‘Overwhelming’ backing for strong climate action, UK study shows”, and the secondary headline “Biggest ever analysis shows public backs carbon tax on industry, flight levies and grants for heat pumps.”
At the time when the first Guardian article appeared I could find no link to the report, so merely commented in passing at Open Mic, but now that the link is available I think it is worth assessing the claims in some detail. There is no doubt that it is a substantial body of work, seeking as it does to interview almost 22,000 people (according to the Guardian – almost 20,000 people according to the report itself; Executive summary on page 6) in the UK and covering residents of every UK Parliamentary constituency. The report pdf runs to 92 pages, and even stripping out front and back pages, references and pages of legal guff, it still contains something like 75 pages of relevant information. In passing, I note that thanks are given for “financial, practical and intellectual contributions to the project” by WWF, National Grid and ScottishPower, the latter of course being a wholly-owned subsidiary of Spanish company Iberdrola, with many interests in renewables and doubtless profits to be made from “net zero”. While casting no doubt on the integrity of the polling process and analysis of the results, and while giving full credit to Demos for making the source of the project’s funding fully transparent, I do observe that none of the funders are exactly disinterested bystanders.
The Polling Methodology is set out for us in Annex 5 of the Report, at pages 77 & 78. And this is where I immediately begin to question the validity of the results. The first thing to notice is that despite the Guardian’s claim that almost 22,000 people were polled, we learn that the number is in fact 19,862. We are told that they were recruited to use the Climate Calculator and submit their choices. Full disclosure is made as to the methodology of selection, with quotas established for gender, age group, region and socio-economic group; results being weighted to ensure they were representative of these categories, in addition to the following categories: disability status, 2019 general election vote, EU referendum vote, current voting intention, household income, education, ethnicity, number of adults in household, number of children in household, vehicle ownership, area of residence type (e.g. city centre), employment status, industry employed in (e.g. ‘construction’) and homeowner or not. I take it as read that this was fairly done and complied with standard polling practice. I make no criticism of it.
However, the next piece of the methodology does ring alarm bells in my mind. We are told that:
Respondents had to complete the Calculator and hit or beat the government’s 39% target for their response to be counted.
The report claims that due to the sample size the results are extremely robust, but does have the grace to caveat that claim by pointing out that the object of the exercise was to get the public’s views on policy given the government’s target (my emphasis). Thus:
[T]he sample is limited to those who completed the Calculator and submitted their choices.
It seems to me that hyperbolic claims such as those made in the Guardian (“The British public have chosen the future they want – one with green jobs, clean air and thriving nature – and which doesn’t hit the worst-off in the pocket,” said Tanya Steele, the CEO of WWF ) are not remotely justified given these limitations. In order for your views to be taken into account, you had to complete the Calculator and submit your choices. Even if you did that, your views would still not be counted if your choices didn’t beat the government’s 39% target. Oh yes, and you’re not allowed to question the validity of the government’s target.
Thus, everything is predicated on the wisdom of the Government’s target, the efficacy of your calculator, your submitting your views in accordance with the object of the exercise, and your producing responses which meet the target. Absent all of that, and your views weren’t counted. At least that’s how it seems to me. Time to look at the Calculator.
The Climate Calculator
The first thing to do is to visit the Climate Calculator websiteiii. As this explains, it is a joint initiative by WWF and Demos (and sponsored by National Grid and ScottishPower: “the UK’s first integrated energy company to generate 100% green electricity”).
In order to understand what exactly is going on here, I am afraid I will have to quote at length from the Climate Calculator website’s front page:
Use the Climate Calculator to choose the climate policies you would like to see in place to help the UK hit its target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Existing policies are likely to get us half way from where we are now to where we need to be. The government knows more is needed – but what?
The Climate Calculator lets you answer this question, based on the impact of different policies, not just on emissions, but also on household budgets, jobs and health. These impacts are based on a mass of research – details on the site (we have not reported on every impact or alternative, only key ones).
The impacts of the policies include costs. But bear in mind that not taking action would cost even more: according to the Bank of England, five times as much for the country as a whole by 2050.
We will publish an analysis of the choices users make (you can request a copy on the final page) to show the UK government how the public want the UK to meet its 2030 climate target – or even how to beat it.
This makes things absolutely explicit. And at this stage it is becoming abundantly obvious that this isn’t remotely an opinion poll about the wisdom of the Government’s policies, or about the costs of those policies, or one which allows you to question the claims made about the costs of those policies or the costs of doing nothing. No, you have to accept the assumptions, and play by their rules. If you don’t, your opinion doesn’t count.
The Calculator allows you to look at what it tells you will be the impact on emissions of policy choices in six main areas, namely electric cars; public transport & cycling; heating; flights; food & land use; and other things we buy.
I had a quick go at playing with the calculator myself, and was quickly met with this message:
The aim is to hit – or beat – the government target. We realise not everyone will agree with this aim, but the purpose of the Calculator is to see what policies users would prefer assuming the government sticks to the target. If when you have gone through each area you haven’t managed to hit it, then you can go back and revise your choices.
Well, that’s honest, at least, but I’m displeased to put it mildly when I consider these limitations, and that they’re completely ignored by the Guardian when it says:
The UK public backs a carbon tax on polluting industries, higher levies on flying and grants for heat pumps in order to tackle the climate crisis, according to the biggest analysis of policy preferences ever published.
Almost 22,000 [sic] people chose their favoured mix of policies to hit the government’s 2030 target for emissions cuts. A speed limit of 60mph on motorways and a campaign to reduce meat eating by 10% were also among the most popular measures, all of which had between 77% and 94% public support.
The public went further than the government, choosing to surpass the current carbon target by 3%. Age, location and political leaning made little difference to the policy choices, the researchers found, with an “overwhelming consensus” for strong and fair climate action.
I suppose if you don’t allow people to question the policy aim, ignore their views if they dare to do so, and disqualify any results which don’t meet your policy goals, then you will get the results you want. But it’s certainly not what I would call an “overwhelming consensus”.
But back to the Climate Calculator. It gets worse. For instance, when responding to the question as to when the charging network should be put in place, I find that I am not allowed to believe that this should be later than 2026. Having delayed this as long as they allow (2026) I am told that “my” strategy is:
[A] charging network by 2026
A comprehensive network of public charging points is in place by 2026: everyone without their own off-street parking will have access to a charge point in the street they live in, and for those on longer journeys there will be rapid charge points at car parks and all petrol stations. For those with off-street parking, private charge points will be available for about £700. There will be a strengthened electricity grid to make this possible.
By the way, the Calculator seems to have changed the parameters available to those using it since the poll was conducted. As mentioned, I couldn’t delay the comprehensive charging network beyond 2026, yet when I read the Report, I find on page 26 a declaration of 91% support for a comprehensive charging network by 2028.
Another example – when it comes to heating the choice is various points between continuing with current Government policies and a rapid shift to “low carbon and energy efficiency”. I am not allowed to say that I want the policy to slow down.
It’s the same with regard to flights. When it comes to style of farming, I have a simple choice between “more intensive farming, more forests” and “more sustainable farming, forests and wildlife habitats”. I’m being channelled down a road of their choosing and not allowed to suggest alternatives. Obviously I’m not sufficiently on board, as when I got to the end of my permitted choices I was met with this message (yes, it was in red):
You’ve not yet met the emissions target, please go back and amend your sliders and policies.
Had I been one of the people polled, and had I declined to do so, my results wouldn’t have been counted.
To conclude this section, I find (on page 10 of the Report) that the Climate Change Committee’s analysis, supporting reports and policy recommendations in its Sixth Carbon Budget were the primary source for modelling the impacts of the policies on tax, prices and jobs. So that’s another layer of loaded assumptions built in to the exercise.
The first claim made in the Guardian headline is that the public backs a carbon tax on industry. Yet when I turn to page 32 of the Report, I find only an average of 24% support for a carbon tax of £100 (rather than £75) per tonne to be paid by manufacturing and construction businesses. Support falls to just 20% among the over 65s. Analysed according to how people voted in the 2019 election, support varies from 21% (Conservatives) to 31% (SNP).
On page 38 of the Report, I find a massive average of 94% support for a carbon tax of £75 per tonne. Personally I find it inconceivable that 24% support for £100 per tonne would jump to 94% support for £75 per tonne if the people polled were allowed an alternative. Perhaps I’m wrong, but these claims just don’t pass the sniff test so far as I’m concerned.
The Guardian headline and article content both claim that the UK public backs higher levies on flying. Page 26 of the Report contains a table claiming 89% support for higher levies on flying, which broke down as to 62% supporting a levy on frequent fliers (i.e. the size of the levy increasing for additional flights per person) and 27% who preferred a flat 10% levy.
Yet page 27 of the Report contains another table, and this tells me that only 41% supported a sharp increase in flying costs, with 28% supporting higher costs for frequent fliers, and just 13% supporting a flat levy of 20%. Interestingly, yet another table, on page 31, tells us that support for large flight levies is lowest among the young, with just 32% of 18-24 year old supporting a sharp increase in flying costs (compared to 45% of over 65s). Support was also lowest in London (38%) and greatest in the East Midlands and Scotland (44%). That surprised me.
The issue revealed by this vast disparity (apparently less than half as much support for high levies as for low ones) is that the public aren’t actually quite so keen on these things at all, and the hippest – youngest and London-dwellers – are the least keen of all. Who knows what the results would have shown had those polled been offered the option of no flight levies? We’ll never know, because it wasn’t an option, and if you tried to opt for it, your result didn’t count.
Grants For Heat Pumps
This is the third measure contained in the Guardian headline, and which we are told has public support. Interestingly, of the six measures highlighted in the Guardian article as enjoying public support, this one enjoyed the lowest claimed support (77%). Curiously, perhaps, as the table on page 30 of the Report tells us, the lowest level of support is again among the 18-24 year age group (74%). Astonishingly, it only enjoys 80% support among Green Party members (page 35 of the Report). Why not 100%?
Also, as the table on page 40 of the report tells us, the most ambitious option with regard to heating and electricity, made possible by government playing an active role, plus subsidies for insulation, with the government increasing its 2030 target for insulation to 1.3m existing homes being insulated and a grant scheme covering insulation where this does not pay for itself through savings on bills, enjoys only 33% support.
And whilst I’m mentioning policy options with low levels of support, the option of a 25% tax on meat and dairy enjoys only 25% support (not surprisingly, perhaps, the highest level of support – 29% – is among those earning more than £81,000 p.a.
But returning to the policies on grants for heat pumps, we observe the same trends among those polled, with levels of support for extreme measures being less than half the levels of support being expressed for less extreme measures. Again, we will never know what levels of support might have been expressed for a policy of taking no action with regard to stripping out gas boilers and replacing them with heat pumps, because that option simply wasn’t on the table.
The Report is a detailed and honest piece of work, transparent at every level. If one takes the trouble to read it, it becomes obvious that it doesn’t begin to justify the headlines surrounding it. On the contrary, it seems obvious to me that levels of public support for “net zero” climate measures are very low indeed. Unfortunately, I suspect the intention was always to produce a one-sided report, whose (artificially-generated) results would be used to produce shrill headlines. As with so much Guardian reporting, the headlines and the article are, strictly speaking, true, but they lie by omission. If the whole context was given, Guardian readers would see that the Report in fact tells a very different story to the fairy tale report in the Guardian. As so often, the Guardian has told us a truth, but it most certainly is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
My final observation is to note the lack of enthusiasm among the 18-24 age group. Perhaps they are less exposed to the BBC propaganda that older age groups continue to lap up? Whatever the explanation, there is some cause for hope that the brainwashing through schools and university may not be quite so effective as we feared. Prevent them from flying, and they won’t be happy!