What the World Thinks of Climate Change

by |July 27, 2015

We know that climate change can generate great debate in the United States. But what about the rest of the world?

Using data collected by the Gallup World Poll in 2007 and 2008, researchers at Columbia and Yale took an unprecedented look at public opinion in 119 countries, representing 90 percent of the world’s population, to investigate what factors most influence peoples’ awareness of climate change and their perception of its risks. The research was published July 27 in Nature Climate Change.

“This is to our knowledge the first and only truly global study where we have climate change opinion data from over 100 countries, so it allows us to compare the findings across the world,” said lead author Tien Ming Lee, a researcher now at Princeton who did the work while at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, at the Earth Institute, Columbia University.

The researchers first divided respondents into those “aware” or “unaware” of climate change. The contrast between developed and developing countries was striking: In North America, Europe and Japan, more than 90 percent of the public is aware of climate change. But in many developing countries relatively few are aware of the issue, although many do report having observed changes in local weather patterns.

“Overall, we find that about 40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change,” said co-author Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and study lead. “This rises to more than 65 percent in some developing countries, like Egypt, Bangladesh and India. There is still a critical need for basic climate literacy in many countries.”

climate change, Gallup poll

Geographic patterns of national climate change perceptions, from Gallup poll taken in 2007–2008 worldwide. Top map shows percentage of awareness of climate change by country; lower map shows from among those who said they were aware of climate change, the percentage who see it as a serious risk.

The team then investigated what factors best predict climate change awareness. They found that worldwide, higher levels of educational attainment are the single strongest predictor of public awareness. However, there are differences between countries. For example, in the United States, the key predictors of awareness are civic engagement, communication access and education. Meanwhile in China, climate change awareness is most closely associated with education, living in an urban area, and having a higher household income.

Prior studies have found that American views are also strongly affected by partisan politics. But American politics doesn’t map to most other countries, and there is little global data on political ideology to compare to, the researchers said.

Assessing the risks is another matter. Looking just at the respondents who were aware of climate change, the researchers examined who perceives climate change as a serious threat to themselves and their own family. Globally, they found a pattern opposite that of awareness—people in most developing countries perceived climate change as a much greater threat than people in developed countries.

The team then investigated what factors best predict risk perception. They found that people in Latin America and Europe tend to perceive climate change as a greater threat when they understand that humans are the major cause. But in many African and Asian countries, risk perception is most strongly associated with a more tangible factor: changes in local temperatures.

However, again there are important differences between countries. For example, in the U.S., Americans are more likely to perceive climate change as a personal threat when they understand it is human-caused, when they perceive that local temperatures have changed, and when they support government efforts to preserve the environment. In China, however, the public perceives climate change as a greater threat when they understand it is human-caused and when they are dissatisfied with local air quality.

What does all this mean? Limiting climate change involves major shifts in public policy and individual behavior regarding energy, transportation, consumption and more. Likewise, preparing for and adapting to climate change impacts will require changes in current practices. Governments will need public support and engagement. This new research suggests that gaining public engagement will vary from country to country, depending on local culture, economy, education and other factors.

“This study strongly suggests that we need to develop tailored climate change communication strategies for individual countries, and even for areas within the same country,” Lee said.

Co-author Ezra Markowitz, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the findings “drive home the critical point that there are a wide variety of factors that can and do influence how people think about climate change. … Communicators and others who want to help individuals and communities connect with this issue at a personal level are likely to be more successful if they keep this diversity in mind.”

“The results also indicate that improving basic education, climate literacy and public understanding of the local dimensions of climate change are vital for public engagement and support for climate action,” Leiserowitz said.

Leiserowitz and Markowitz are both also affiliated with the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

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