A major new Pew Research Center study this week found that Americans and Europeans are only moderately worried about climate change while those in more vulnerable regions — Latin America, Africa, and Asia — expressed much higher levels of concern.
The study, which surveyed 40 countries and over 45,000 respondents between late March and late May of this year, found that the people of Burkina Faso, a landlocked West African country of 17 million, are more concerned about global climate change than any other country surveyed, with 79 percent of them being very concerned. On the other hand, in the United States only 42 percent said the same thing about climate change, compared to 68 percent of people who responded that they were very concerned about the Islamic militant group ISIS. In fact, climate change came second to last for concern in the United States, 12 percent ahead of territorial disputes with China and one percent behind tensions with Russia.
While climate change was at the top of the charts in many regions — primarily Latin America (61 percent) and Africa (59 percent) — ISIS was the main concern in a number of developed countries, including the United States, Canada, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Germany, the U.K., and Australia.
All in all, the study found that the majority of the populations in 19 countries believe that climate change is the top global threat, and regions especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change expressed the most concern. Those countries included South Africa, Pakistan, Chile, Mexico, and a number of other developing countries more vulnerable to drought, heat waves, sea level rise, and severe extreme weather.
Participants in the poll were asked to reply yes or no to whether they were “very concerned”, “somewhat concerned”, “not too concerned,” or “not at all concerned” regarding six issues: Climate change, global economic instability, ISIS, Iran’s nuclear program, cyberattacks, tensions with Russia, and territorial disputes with China.
This moderate concern for global climate change in the United States is not surprising considering a recent Gallup poll found that about one-third of Americans believe the effects of global warming will either never happen or not happen in their lifetime. A March 2014 Gallop poll found that climate change and quality of the environment were near the bottom of a list of 15 national issues, behind drug use, hunger and homelessness, and social security.
In Peru and Brazil, where three quarters of respondents were very concerned about climate change, years of deforestation and lax environmental oversight have left many feeling anxious. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty, environmental degradation, and disease are already major issues, climate change is especially worrisome: Aside from Burkino Faso, Uganda (74 percent), Ghana (71 percent), Nigeria (65 percent), and Kenya (68 percent) ranked global climate change as a very high concern.
In India, where drought and heat waves have crippled agriculture and left thousands dead, and where there is a major push for renewable energy to bring power to hundreds of millions without it, 73 percent of respondents said they were very concerned. In the Philippines, where climate change is exacerbating extreme weather events such as typhoons, and where sea level rise is a major threat, 72 percent responded that they were very concerned.
Pew also attributes elevated levels of concern around climate change to the forthcoming high-profile United Nations climate conference in Paris at the end of the year, when leaders hope to hash out the next global treaty to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. As countries announce their climate targets and negotiation stances, much attention is being given to the 193-nation event.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Pew Research Center
A Pew Research Center poll from January 2015 found that while 87 percent of scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity, only half of the U.S. public agreed. One thing both the general public and scientists agreed on in the United States is that science education is lagging. According to the Pew poll, 68 percent of the general public considers U.S. science education at or below average; 84 percent of scientists held the same view.
While young people may not be getting their climate change information in the classroom, they are picking it up elsewhere — whether from the Pope’s major push on the issue, progressive websites, or possibly even the Weather Channel. The new Pew poll found that in the U.S., young people are ten percent more likely to express concern about climate change that those over 50 — 46 percent compared to 36 percent.
One of the largest divergences in responses in the United States came from Democrats and Republicans, with about 62 percent of Democrats being very concerned about climate change and just 20 percent of Republicans saying the same.
In China — the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter and largest coal user — only 19 percent of people responded that they were very concerned about climate change. However, this was still by far the highest response to any of the options. Only 8 percent of Chinese respondents were seriously concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and 9 percent over tensions with Russia. Perhaps the Chinese are a very level-headed culture, or perhaps their government limits access to information.
Even if climate change isn’t the primary driver of change, Chinese leaders are pursuing major efforts to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, as coal-fired power plants have left many of their urban centers draped in unhealthy levels of smog. A larger middle class and greater awareness of environmental issues are also forcing the hand of the leadership.
At the bottom end of the spectrum of the Pew study were Israel and Poland, where only 14 percent of the respondents expressed serious concern about climate change. Poland is a very heavy coal mining country and Israel has a toxic mix of other, even more pressing security concerns to worry about, including Iran and ISIS.