A poll conducted in 119 countries reveals 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, note the researchers: 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.
The study, which uses data from the 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll, will appear today in Nature Climate Change.
Factors in Each Country
“Overall, we find that about 40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change,” says coauthor 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.”
The research team also found that education level tends to be the single strongest predictor of a person’s awareness of climate change. However, the research reveals some stark differences between countries. 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.
“This 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,” says lead author Tien Ming Lee, a Princeton University researcher who conducted the analysis while at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, at the Earth Institute of Columbia University.
Prior studies have found that Americans’ views are also strongly affected by partisan politics. But there is little global data on political ideology and its effect on climate change views, the researchers say.
Developing Countries Feel the Threat
Assessing the risks is another matter, note the scientists. Looking at just 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, say the researchers. For example, in the United States, members of the public 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 members of the public perceive climate change as a greater threat when they understand it is human-caused and when they are dissatisfied with local air quality.
Big Shifts Ahead?
Limiting climate change will involve major shifts in public policy and individual behavior regarding energy, transportation, consumption, and more, note the researchers.
Likewise, they say, preparing for and adapting to climate change impacts will require changes in current practices, and 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, say the researchers.
“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 says.
Leiserowitz adds, “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.”