This year has seen a plethora of climate-related disasters, from hurricanes to droughts and from fires to floods. In the midst of the chaos, the IPCC dropped the first installment of its latest climate report, mapping out how our current choices will shape the future of the planet. It all seems like now is a good time to examine the public’s views about climate change.
Unfortunately, one of the best sources for such check-ins, the Pew Research Center, Your most recent poll on this topic Way back in February. The Survey of Industrialized Economies reflects a strong and growing concern that climate change will affect people individually and there will be a willingness to make changes to avoid its worst effects. Nevertheless, because of the times, it is likely that opinion has moved even further since then.
Pew surveyed people in 17 different industrialized economies in North America, Europe and around the Pacific Rim. Clearly left out are the developing economies, which may have the greatest impact on the trajectory of future climate, as well as China. But the survey does provide some perspective on public opinion in countries that are actively pursuing policies aimed at addressing their carbon emissions.
Most of the survey questions were done on a four-choice scale, in which people were able to express a degree of agreement, including “not at all,” “not much,” “somewhat,” and “a lot.” Typically, each of the two positive and negative options were grouped together.
The top line results are pretty clear. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed were somewhat or greatly concerned that they would experience personal loss due to climate change. And an even greater percentage (80 percent) were willing to change their lifestyles to limit the effects of climate change. Although, on average, there are mixed feelings about whether global society is doing everything it should, only 56 percent think we’re doing a good job and 52 percent lack the belief that we In the end we will do only what we need to do.
As you can see from the chart, however, there was considerable variability between countries. European countries were the least and least concerned, while the US, Canada and most of the Pacific Rim countries fell into these extremes. (The exception is South Korea, with the most anxious population anywhere.)
In some countries, Pew had data from five years ago to compare. This data indicated that Germany saw the highest increase in concern about climate (up 19 points), and all other EU countries where data was available also saw an increase. Conversely, the concern that you would be personally affected decreased in the US and Japan, although only slightly.
In all countries except Greece and South Korea, people aged 18-29 were most concerned about experiencing personal loss from climate change. The difference between them and those over 65 was highest in Sweden (40 points difference) and New Zealand (31 points). Meanwhile in the UK the difference was the lowest (11 points). Women were also about 10 points more likely than men to be anxious in most countries.
There was also a left/right divide, with liberals more likely to be at a disadvantage. You would be shocked to hear that the difference was highest in the US, with a difference of 59 points between the left and the right, followed by Australia, where the difference was 41 points. The smallest difference was observed in South Korea, where only six points separated the left from the right.
let’s do something
As a result of these concerns, most people were willing to have some degree or a lot in their lives that would help reduce carbon emissions. Within EU countries, Italy saw the greatest desire (93 percent), and the absolute lowest was 69 percent, similar to that seen in the Netherlands. The US, Canada and most Pacific Rim countries were somewhere between these extremes, with the exception of Japan, where only 55 percent were willing to make any changes. As before, the youngest age group was generally more likely to be willing to change, as were those with a higher level of education.
It should be noted that, in many countries, more people were willing to make changes than felt they were likely to be personally affected, suggesting that there is a degree of altruism involved.
When asked who was doing a good job of addressing climate change, generally the European Union (63 percent felt it was doing well) and the United Nations (56 percent) were given high marks. However, a majority of those surveyed felt that the US was not gaining weight (61 percent rated its performance as poor), and only 18 percent said China was doing well. The American public had the highest ratings for its performance, but even they were underwater, with only 47 percent suggesting the US was doing a good job of responding to climate change.
As the chart here shows, most countries had a mixed and fairly realistic view of how well their country was doing in addressing climate change. In general, conservatives were more likely to say that their country was doing well, with the gap between conservatives and liberals again being the largest in the US and Australia.
While many believed the international community was doing well, most did not believe it was going to be able to do enough. Four countries – South Korea, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands – saw less than half doubt our collective ability to keep things under control. In every other country this number was half or more.
Finally, people were asked whether addressing climate change would result in a net economic gain, loss or little difference. Overall, the plurality was for climate change neutral, with those who thought it would be an advantage to exclude those expecting economic harm. The reactions here were complicated. France saw the least expectation of profit but was middle of the pack in terms of loss expectation. The US, meanwhile, had the biggest losses, but was middle of the pack in terms of the size of the population that expected economic gains.
An increasing number of studies are now indicating that we will have to make rapid progress over the next two decades if we still hope to keep atmospheric carbon levels below the point where they will drive two degrees of warming. Survey results show some indication that the public is closer to being ready to tackle that challenge, with the younger generation being significantly more inclined than their elders.
But that preparation is not uniform, and there is some political polarization that can make it challenging to do so in countries such as the US and Australia.
And again, the vote was preceded by a number of dramatic weather events, some of which are directly linked to climate change. It is possible – although unfortunately not guaranteed – that more people being directly affected by climate change will actually increase their sense of risk.