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Environmental Values

Stability and Change in British Public Discourses about Climate Change between 1997 and 2010

Stuart Capstick, Nicholas Pidgeon and Karen Henwood

Environmental Values 24 (2015): 725-753. doi: 10.3197/096327115X14420732702617


Public understanding of climate change has been a topic of environmental social sciences research since the early 1990s. To date, temporal change in climate change understanding has been approached almost exclusively using quantitative, survey-based methodologies, which indicate that people's responses on a limited number of measures have indeed altered in response to changing circumstances. However, quantitative longitudinal evidence can be criticised for presenting an overly simplistic view of people's beliefs and values. The current study is the first to explore changes in public understanding over an extended time period using in-depth qualitative methods. The study utilises a novel longitudinal methodology to explore changes in discourses across six separate datasets collected over the period 1997-2010, comprising a total of 208 public participants from across Great Britain. We find for the first time that discourses regarding the relevance of climate change to everyday life, and concerning rationales for personal action have exhibited subtle but important shifts over this period. By contrast, other aspects of public understanding have exhibited considerable stability over time, particularly with respect to ethical principles concerning stewardship of nature, justice and fairness. We conclude by distinguishing between three scales of change in public understanding of climate change: relatively short-lived movements in attitudes as revealed by survey data and influenced by transitory phenomena; slower shifts in public discourses that track changing cultural contexts; and enduring ways of understanding climate change that are tied to longer-term ethical foundations.


Public perceptions, climate change, climate ethics, longitudinal methodology

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

Morality and Climate Change: Is Leaving your TV on Standby a Risky Behaviour? Catherine Butler

Wrongful Harm to Future Generations: The Case of Climate Change.Marc D. Davidson

Individual Guilt or Collective Progressive Action? Challenging the Strategic Potential of Environmental Citizenship Theory. Rasmus Karlsson

Bearing the Weight of the World: On the Extent of an Individual’s Environmental Responsibility. Ty Raterman

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles

Editorial: Climate of Arrogance, Disengagement and Injustice Simon Hailwood

Spatial Framing, Existing Associations and Climate Change Beliefs. Adrian Brügger, Nicholas F. Pidgeon

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