Using data from the 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll, conducted in 119 countries, we identified the factors that most influence climate change awareness and risk perception for 90 percent of the world’s population.
The contrast between developed and developing countries is striking: In North America, Europe and Japan, more than 90% of the public is aware of climate change. But in many developing countries relatively few are aware of the issue. Overall, we find that about 40% of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change, or nearly 2 billion people. This rises to more than 65% of the public in some developing countries, like Egypt, Bangladesh and India.
Yet many of these people have observed changes in their local weather and climate conditions, which is often the cause of great concern, as many are subsistence farmers. But many people around the world currently lack the concept of climate change to help them make sense of the changes they are currently experiencing. Even more importantly, many people in developing countries lack the concept of climate change to inform their long-term decision-making. What crops do we plant? What energy sources do we invest in? Where do we build our new cities? Where do we site our new roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and power systems – and to what standards and tolerances should they be built? Developing countries around the world are making critical long-term investments for the future and do not have the extra capital to make and fix big mistakes. Unfortunately, not knowing you are at risk can put you at greater risk.
We found that globally, educational attainment tends to be the single strongest predictor of public awareness of climate change. For example, if one is illiterate, it is very difficult to access or understand global discussions in the media about a topic that is typically described in the language of science and global politics. The research also reveals important 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, proximity to urban areas, and household income.
Assessing the risks is another matter. Looking at just the respondents who were aware of climate change, we examined who perceives climate change as a serious threat to themselves and their own family. Globally, we found a pattern opposite that of awareness – people in most developing countries perceive climate change as a much greater threat than people in developed countries.
This makes sense, as people in developing countries are generally much more vulnerable to climate change impacts. This is for a variety of reasons, but particularly because they live in societies that often lack the resilience – the economic, technological, and social capital – to bounce back quickly from extreme events. Developed countries have far more resources to respond, recover, and rebuild after a disaster.
We then investigated what factors best predict risk perception. We 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 will require 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 for and engagement in climate change solutions. This new research suggests that gaining public engagement will vary from country to country, depending on local culture, economy, education and other factors.
The results also indicate that improving basic education, climate literacy and public understanding of the local dimensions of climate change will be vital to build public and political will for climate action.
The study: Predictors of public climate change awareness and risk perception around the world was published in Nature Climate Change and conducted by researchers from Yale University, Columbia University, Utah State University, Princeton University, The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Academia Sinica in Taipei.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like a copy of the paper with the subject line “Gallup World Poll NCC paper.” It can also be accessed on the Nature Climate Change website: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2728