Only about one third of people in Germany, the UK, France and Norway believe that there is a strong scientific consensus on the reality of climate change, says a major survey of opinions on climate change, climate policy and future energy options among over 4,000 people across those four countries.

That's an important finding, say researchers from the European Perception of Climate Change (EPCC) project, because it's thought that the question may well be a 'gateway belief'. The project is jointly funded by ESRC and its French, German and Norwegian partner Research Councils under the JPI-Climate initiative.

Project coordinator Professor Nick Pidgeon explains: “This means that if you wish to engage people with climate change, and can discuss with them the fact that scientists really do overwhelmingly agree that it is happening, that it poses significant future risk to us all, and is caused primarily by humans, then people will be more concerned about the issue and be more prepared to take action to do something about it.”

The finding is consistent with research from the USA and Australia and has considerable significance for UK and European climate scientists and policymakers. To address this, EPCC researchers led by Cardiff University in collaboration with partners from institutions in Paris, Bergen and Stuttgart, offer a series of six recommendations for more effective public engagement on climate change issues.

These recommendations include helping people 'join the dots' between periods of extreme weather and climate change. The EPCC survey found that the national impacts people most associate with climate change are storms, floods and unpredictable weather. Hence, also talking about these sorts of events helps to tie in with the associations already in people's minds when it comes to climate change. And since adaptation policies appear relatively uncontroversial, communications should build on this to talk about different types of climate response not just mitigation measures such as taxing fossil fuels.

“Public engagement with climate change, and support for polices to tackle it, is critical in creating a climate-proof Europe,” says Professor Pidgeon. “Findings from the EPCC project are proving valuable in helping communications professionals, campaigners, policymakers and other practitioners adopt the most practical and effective ways of engaging the public in climate change conversations.”