FOR almost three decades, the British Social Attitudes Survey has measured growing acceptance of things like homosexuality and single motherhood. On December 7th it picked up a more worrying kind of nonchalance. Ardour for environmentalism is cooling.
The furore over whether climate change is real and man-made that has shaken American politics barely stirs a leaf in Britain. Yet the issue is quietly slipping from the popular consciousness. In early 2007, soon after Sir Nicholas Stern published a doom-laden report on climate change, 19% of people told Ipsos MORI, a pollster, that the environment was one of the most pressing issues facing the nation. Nowadays just 4% think so.
Why might this be? Peter Lynn of the University of Essex reckons a fuss over the way some academics presented data, known as “climategate”, may have had an effect. And present economic woes have distracted people from long-term concerns. Compared with looming household debts and the prospect of unemployment, rising sea levels do not seem troubling. That may explain why graduates still fret about global warming whereas those without qualifications are far less concerned about it (see chart).
Another possible reason is that people’s immediate environment has improved. Vehicles are less polluting (seearticle). The proportion worried about car fumes has almost halved to 28% in the past ten years. Concerns about industrial emissions are also down.
Making it cheaper and easier for people to behave well has encouraged green behaviour in many. In 2003 local authorities in England were required to provide doorstep recycling collections. That has had a big effect: some 86% of people recycled newspapers and empty bottles in 2010, up from 51% ten years earlier. Ardent environmentalists and hardened sceptics recycle at the same rate. Therein lies a lesson: for environmental policies to succeed, they should be made as painless as possible.