New Yale-led research reveals for the first time what the world thinks about climate change and why.
Using data from the 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll, conducted in 119 countries, an international team of researchers identified the factors that most influence climate change awareness and risk perception for 90% of the world’s population.
The contrast between developed and developing countries was striking, note the researchers: 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, although many do report having observed changes in local weather patterns.
The study was published in the journal Nature Climate Change on July 27.
“Overall, we find that about 40% 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% 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,” said 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, 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 said.
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, said 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.
Limiting climate change will involve major shifts in public policy and individual behavior regarding energy, transportation, consumption, and more, note the researchers. Likewise, they said, 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, said 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 said.
Leiserowitz added, “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.”