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

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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.

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Keywords: Public perceptions; climate change; climate ethics; longitudinal methodology

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2015

More about this publication?
  • Environmental Values is an international peer-reviewed journal that brings together contributions from philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, geography, anthropology, ecology and other disciplines, which relate to the present and future environment of human beings and other species. In doing so we aim to clarify the relationship between practical policy issues and more fundamental underlying principles or assumptions.

    Environmental Values has a Journal Impact Factor (2018) of 1.933. 5 Year Impact Factor: 2.493.
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