Abstract In seeking to determine whether climate change mitigation strategies are effective, researchers and policy-makers typically use energy consumption as an indicator. UK government data show that energy use amongst the public is rising, despite measures to encourage energy conservation. Yet, research to date has not explicitly asked which actions the public are taking with the express intention of mitigating climate change. Using Stern's classification of impact-oriented and intent-oriented behaviour research, the research described in this paper examines both actions taken ‘out of concern for climate change’ and energy conservation practices amongst the UK public. The findings show a clear divergence between actions prescribed by policy-makers (i.e. energy conservation) and those taken by the public to mitigate climate change (e.g., recycling). Furthermore, those who take action to conserve energy generally do so for reasons unconnected to the environment (e.g., to save money). Regression analyses highlight the distinct determinants of these two behavioural categories. These findings imply that surveys using energy reduction as an indicator of public response to climate change falsely assume that these can be equated; consequently, they will provide a distorted picture of behavioural response. Possible reasons for the asymmetry of intentions and impacts, and policy implications, are discussed.