Having a better understanding of the public’s awareness of the risks of climate change will help provide a platform for more effective engagement at the community and society level. This study aimed to explore the Scottish public’s understanding of current and future risks and opportunities posed by a changing climate, and highlight any gaps that should be the focus of future public and community engagement on adaptation.

The report is based on a rapid evidence assessment (REA) of previous quantitative and qualitative studies of public perceptions of climate risks and adaptation in the UK, and a nationally representative survey of the Scottish public.

Key findings
  • Echoing recent trends, concern about climate change in Scotland was high and increasing, and a majority felt that Scotland was already feeling the effects of climate change. 
  • Weather-related events were generally seen as more of a serious problem for Scotland overall than for respondents’ local areas. 
  • Risks to both the natural and built environment were also more likely to be seen as a problem for the whole of Scotland than for respondents’ local areas.
  • Respondents generally recognised the need for action to address the impacts of climate change but were fairly moderate about the perceived efficacy of individual or household actions. 
  • Most respondents had already taken, or planned to take, at least one action to help address the impacts of climate change. 
  • Concern about climate change and perceived seriousness of risks varied between groups and by location. It tended to be higher among women, younger people (aged 16-34), those educated to a degree level and homeowners.

These findings can inform future public engagement in a number of way, including on how to communicate climate risks and extreme weather and build on the public’s awareness, and the most effective starting points for action.

This report was commissioned as part of the Scottish Government’s work to develop a new Public Engagement Strategy for climate change. At the core of this work is the need to understand public attitudes to climate change and review different models of public engagement to examine what works in achieving the transformation needed.

Key findings
  • Levels of concern about climate change have increased in recent years. The review finds that most people in Scotland believe that climate change is happening, and agree that climate change is an immediate and urgent issue. Scots are more likely to say they believe human activity has been a factor in the causes of climate change than people in England and Wales.
  • The Scottish public generally feel that more could be done to tackle climate change and support climate targets and agreements, and believe that governments should be showing leadership for tackling climate change.
  • The review identifies a number of ways governments can engage the public on climate change – no one identified as the ‘best’ approach. Each approach offer strengths and limitations, and reflect the range of different purposes it is designed to serve. 
  • The findings lend weight to the Scottish Government’s focus on public behaviours and public engagement as part of its work to tackle the climate emergency. However, levels of concern about and personal action on climate change issues vary across different demographic groups.
  • In the design and facilitation of public engagement it is therefore worth considering carefully the different ‘starting points’ that different groups may have in terms of understanding and engagement on climate change. For effective engagement, it is important to make climate change easy to understand and relatable to the public.

It is worth noting that the vast majority of studies included in the review took place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of the surveys and six of the public engagement examples included in this review were carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic. As these were conducted during a time of crisis and transition, it is too soon to say whether these findings accurately reflect the attitudes and behaviours of the public in a post-COVID-19 world. This review also does not have enough data to make comparisons on public attitudes to climate change before and after COVID-19.