Have Attitudes to Climate Change altered between 2015 and 2021?

CDSM has been measuring changing attitudes to ‘the environment’ for decades. Way back in the 1970s/1980s, the focus was on ‘pollution’ but in recent decades this has transformed into more specific questions about perceptions and beliefs in today’s big issue - climate change.

Here we present values-based insights into this issue that is often misunderstood by both policy makers and campaigners.

Our evidence is primarily based on quantitative surveys, with a sprinkling of our experience in many qualitative studies. The models we use are the Values Modes (VMs) and the psychological Attributes associated with them. If the reader encounters anything with which they are unfamiliar, they can explore our website, where there is a wealth of information. We also use the concept of Power Values Modes (PVMs) – the six VMs that express the nature of their values most strongly.

The table above shows overall belief in climate change. After decades of scientific evidence, and campaigning for behaviour and policy change, the UK population’s belief in the reality of climate change reached slightly over 80% by 2015. This has increased to slightly less than 90% by 2021. This is good news.

But within the acceptance of the evidence of climate change there has been a changing perception of the causes of climate change. Understanding and engaging with these different starting points is important to campaign communicators and their targets – organizational and governmental decision makers and policy developers – who have responsibility (and power) to turn concepts into behaviours.

Our research highlights not only the numerical size of the groups who believe that climate change is happening, but the difference in size between them based on three types of causal factor. Being able to separate these factors is crucial in developing insights about the nature of those beliefs – so that future campaigns, communications, and policies can be created to unite some basic conflicting orientations.

Having established there has been a quantitative change in orientations let’s look data little more deeply. This first look will examine 2021 data only. 2015 data looks very similar but, for brevity, will not be presented here.

Readers unfamiliar with the definitions of the 118 Attributes or the 6 Power Values Modes (Concerned Ethicals, Transcenders, Now People, Golden Dreamers, Brave New World, and Roots) should explore the CDSM website further.

Climate Change is real - mostly because of human activity.

The high indices for Positive Green (POSG), 57% above the national average, and Green Intent (GREENI), 50% above that mark, come as no surprise. These ‘make sense’ to both campaigners and the man in the street.

The other highly indexed Attributes all fall firmly in the communitarian ‘WE’ (as opposed to the individualistic ‘ME’) sector of the values space. This is an area that is dominant in the Pioneer Maslow Group - the PVMs Concerned Ethical (CE) indexing at 25% above the national benchmark, and Transcender (TX) at 46% above the benchmark. Both these PVMs were also significantly above the benchmark in 2015.

People with these types of values systems are found in significant numbers engaging with ‘green’ campaigns, up to and including working for campaigning organizations. They tend to be quick in changing their behaviours when they learn better ways of preventing or ameliorating practices that cause further damage to the climate. It is their values that drive the nature of climate change communications – and ‘successful’ campaigns of

• awareness raising,
• supporter membership drives
• fundraising increases
• mobilizations.

The other over-indexed PVM, the Now People (NP), differs significantly between 2015 (index 103) and 2021 (index 124).

This is a shift that campaigners have been working at for years. The NP are more represented among middle market, younger (C1-C2, 25-44) Middle England. They are the group of people who have significant impact of social and consumer behaviours - and tend to lag behind leading edge behaviours. They have traditionally been resistant to messages from ‘green campaigners’ – often rejecting them as been ‘too extreme’ or disbelieving many communications as not matching their own experience. The values that drove ‘successful’ campaigns were not directed at them and they subsequently did not adopt the preferred thoughts and behaviours prized by the CE and TX.

But the continuing drip, drip, drip of news stories of extreme weather events, and the media coverage of the COP 26 in Glasgow has stimulated their alignment with the large ‘cultural event’ in the UK – something that is coming into their experience and replacing the more esoteric messaging coming out CE/TX values-driven organizations and communications. The NP have also been attracted by ‘personalities’, like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg.

This is both a quantitative and qualitative shift in the group of people who believe that climate change is solidly evidence-based and is being driven by human behaviour.

This is important to human society as these are the type of people who feel empowered by the truth – not frightened by it. They believe that if humans are mostly to blame for the changing climate, then humans can change their behaviours and prevent or mitigate further harmful activity. They hold the type of values that are open to quick changes and innovative solutions.

When these types of belief move from 29% to 43% of the population there are major impacts on ‘sustainable strategies’ of producing and service organizations and political systems and Party policy positions.

It is not just that 88% of the population believes in climate change – it is the type of values-driven beliefs that matter, and how open they are to rapid and sustainable change.

This insight is brought home by the second group of believers who were 17.0% of the population in 2015 and now slightly larger at 19.5% in 2021.

Climate Change is real - mostly caused by natural patterns in the environment.

In contrast to the first and largest group of believers in ‘evidence-based’ climate change, this group of people look at the same evidence and come up with a different conclusion.

In 2021 this is at the heart of the Values War over the interpretation of data (fake news, ‘alternative facts’, etc.) and the best way to select actions to halt climate change and/or adapt to inevitable forces impacting tomorrow’s world. We have often referred to this values conflict as the ‘logjam of violent agreement’ and this group is at the violent end of the spectrum of values.

People that believe in climate change but believe it is largely driven by naturally occurring patterns, over index on a range of Attributes that are diametrically opposed to the Attributes of those who believe that the changes are mostly rooted in human behaviours.

Three of the top seven Attributes of their values system are either personally violent or anti-social. Simmer (SIMMER) is a measure of organized street violence and civil disorder, over indexed by 42% compared to the national population. Force (FORCE) measures agreement with statements that hold that the use of force to win arguments is OK; this orientation is 38% more likely with this type of believer. Unobliged (UNOBLG) measures the belief that the ‘better-off’ have no obligation to help others less fortunate and that the less fortunate are responsible for their own misfortunes; an anti-social position that over indexes at 131.

Other research by CDSM has shown these types of Attributes correlate with a range of anti-social ideologies and behaviours, i.e. extreme individualism. Such people may strongly resist calls for non-violent collective action - something traditionally performed by ‘green groups’ – but are open to, and some welcome, collective action that turns violent.

The alternative facts they marshal and the pivot on the mainstream interpretation that they offer is a type of display of control over others that they mobilize in the way they run their lives. This is measured by the ‘Control Over Others Attribute (CONTR) – which is indexed at 131.

This hasn’t changed much since 2015 – it is a values-based orientation not a surface reaction.

The PVM indices are almost a direct inversion of those of the believers in human-caused change – another indication of the logjam of violent agreement. The CE/TX/NP are all under indexed and the Golden Dreamer (GD) segment is significantly over indexed at 54% more than average.

They are not climate change ‘deniers’ – they accept it is occurring. They are combative by nature and ‘need’ to win arguments and many of them have little compunction about selecting data to suit their interpretation. They are often in groups of highly intelligent and influential groups or organizations that portray themselves as ‘rational and fact based’ to governmental and organizational decision-making units.

Positioning themselves as the voice of reason, they try to prevent ‘human-based’ solutions to climate change that could potentially harm the electability or profitability of organizations currently in control of processes. They promote a way forward that keeps the status quo, with some ‘reasonable’ ways around the edges - radically promoting a tepid response to the climate crisis. At times their radical response is unethical and wilfully blind to the implications of the alternative facts they present. When this occurs, they have little remorse for the actions.

This is a values orientation that is termed ‘late adopter’ of new ideas - ideas and behaviours that may well have been previously established by more innovative early adopter thinkers and doers.

It is obvious that if these two groups are brought together there will massive agreement about the truth of climate change, but also massive disagreement about causes of the problem and, consequently, the acceptability of solutions proposed.

Both of these two committed climate change believers have grown at the expense of the final group of believers – those that agree that climate change is real but that the evidence for causes is mixed. This orientation has a disempowering dynamic to it and often leads to them ‘sitting on the fence’ when it comes to support for solutions – from either side.

Both the other active believer groups have tried to cherry pick people from this group to gain support for their own solutions – but these are fickle supporters for both points of view. In a word, these people have the ability to “feel strongly both ways”.

This group presents real problems to policy makers and marketing decision makers. Their belief in climate change does not translate into the behaviour change that is needed for solutions that depend on personal actions

Climate Change is real - mixed evidence for causes.

These are the people who believe that climate change is happening but do not feel they are sure enough to strongly support one contention of cause over the other. This is, perhaps, because of confusion over conflicting messaging from the other believer groups.

As a group they are an example of one of the issues at the heart of today’s divided Britain. They are conflicted about their beliefs and what is really true. Briefly, they believe the climate is changing (“my belief”), but don’t have a strong conviction about the causes (“the truth”) – and as a result are least likely among the three believer groups to support appeals based for specific types of action on climate change.

This group is much less sure about life in general. In terms of their top seven Attributes they are much more muted in their approach to life. The ‘man-made’ believer group displays some Attributes that are more than 50% above the national average; while the ‘natural causes’ group displays some Attributes that are more than 40% above the national average. But this groups highest indexed Attributes are closer to the national averages – the highest Attribute only indexing at 15% over the national base.

Rather than spotlight any individual Attributes it is easier to typify three Attributes into one segment, and several outliers.

This ‘climate change deflector’ segment encompasses three Attributes that index between 115 and 111. The first is Complacent (COMPLC) - they do not want to change as long as they are comfortable AND strongly agree with the statement “I find it difficult to know what to think in a world filled with conflicting ideas”. This the crux of their beliefs about climate change! They also prefer to not think about climate change at all, agreeing that “As long as I am comfortable and contented, I really don’t want much more from life”. This correlates with an easy-going approach to life encapsulated in the Tao (TAO) Attribute that honours other’s freedoms to follow their own path, even if it breaks social rules and standards. The final slightly over indexed Attribute is Non-reflective (NONREF) that reveals that they don’t really want to think hard about most things in life; and believe their own life is not really in their control and it is best to just go along with it all.

Climate change is just another issue to deal with, and deflecting is the chosen strategy for doing that.

This group also has a predilection for judging others, and that may grind against their (self) non-reflective tendency, leaving them even more unsure. Divided (DIVID) measures a belief that society is being divided between “have and have nots” and that doesn’t bother them. At the same time, they over index on Whip (WHIP) – believing harsher sentences should be given to criminals, including corporal (and possibly capital) punishment.

This can look like an internal contradiction with the more laid-back approach to life. A PVM analysis may point to reasons for this.

Grit (GRIT) is one of the outliers to this profile. They index very slightly higher than the national base, claiming they are “encouraged by setbacks…and finish what they begin.” Though this is their belief, the other over indexed Attributes would tend to indicate that they are less likely than others to attempt behaviours that challenge them in the first place.

Climate change campaigns and upcoming government legislation are posed as challenges. To facilitate a comfortable life and a desire to not think about what issues like climate change mean to their life, this group is likely to among those last to adopt changes to the way they live their life.

Roots (RT) is the group over indexes (129) on this approach to life. This PVM is the most fatalistic and change resistant among the six segments. Their strength is their slowness to react to ephemeral social trends that can appear to be very important in news cycles - especially in the hyper-active world of social media. The issue has come and gone before they pick up on it – they are the anchor against chaos in a more and more divided Britain. Their values mitigate against rapid adoption of new behaviours.

Campaigners and communicators often use a targeting method based on three factors – recency, frequency and salience – to identify people, attitudes and behaviours most susceptible to their blandishments. This works quite well with four of the six PVM but the slow changing RT are often hard to identify and once identified tend to be slow in reacting for reasons given above.

The four segments most likely to be identifiable and responsive to the communications model all under-index between 13% and 30% below the national benchmark within this climate change belief system.

Transcender 70
Brave New World 70
Golden Dreamer 76
Now People 87

Transcenders and Now People are usually clustered as an Innovator/Early Adopter group – likely to make changes once they know about them. Hence another reason why people espousing this attitude to climate change are not especially open to changing their behaviours.


Attitudes to beliefs in the causes of climate change have altered significantly between 2015 and 2021. Society has become more likely to believe the evidence of the thousands of scientists, whose has been accumulating for over 50 years, along with recommendations from politicians for almost 30 years.

Three different forms of believing in the causes of climate change have been examined and we found that 88% of the UK population claims to believe in climate change - but they differ on the cause and ways of dealing with it.

The three different belief groups have very different values systems. Although the single largest (and quickest growing) group (43%) feels self-empowered to change their behaviours as and when needed - the other two groups are much less so. One group is growing very slowly, now 19.5%, but can be termed more contrarian in life and antagonistic to the largest group’s evaluation of shared data sets. The final group was the largest group in 2015 (36.1%) but is now barely a quarter of believers in climate change (25.4%) – and they just don’t want to think about it.

It is clear from this short analysis the implications for new communications, campaigns and policy development would benefit from exploration using this form of values analysis if the necessary behaviour change is to be achieved most effectively and efficiently within budgetary and time constraints.