So how long do we have to wait to see climate impacts? We know that scientists, economists, and politicians confront this question routinely, giving rise to much debate. Our recent multicountry poll shows that people around the world already have their own answer. Particularly in developing countries, ordinary people believe that climate change is damaging them—now.
Urgency: how soon will the effects of climate change be felt?
In 8 of the 15 countries, a majority of the public thinks climate change is substantially harming their fellow citizens now. Some of the largest majorities on this question appeared among people in the low-income countries: in Kenya 88 percent think people in their country are being harmed now, in Vietnam 86 percent, and in Senegal 75 percent. In both China (71 percent) and India (59 percent) large majorities believe that impacts are being felt now.
On the other hand, in five countries, less than half the public thinks that climate change is affecting their country negatively now: Russia (27 percent), the US (34 percent), Indonesia (39 percent), Iran (42 percent), and France (47 percent).
In addition to revealing a fairly divided public opinion on the seriousness climate change, the US poll also showed no consensus on when its effects will start to be felt. Over one-third of the US public projected the impact of climate change out 50 years or more (50 years - 12 percent, 100 years - 10 percent, never - 14 percent).
In Russia, 21 percent saw the effects of climate change not being experienced for 50 years or more and an additional 16 percent did not express an opinion. In Iran, 13 percent of the public thought Iranians won’t be affected for 50 years or more, and an additional 18 percent did not express an opinion.
Nearness to home: What aspects of life might be affected by unchecked climate change?
The poll then posed a series of questions such as “If climate change is left unchecked worldwide, how much do you think climate change will affect each of the following in our country?” The aspects evaluated were:
- The types of food we produce
- The types of plants and animals that can live here
- Rainfall and other available water resources
- The price of food and other essential goods
- The likelihood of natural disasters, like droughts or floods
- Our coastline
- People’s need to move their homes to different locations
Clear majorities in all countries (over 70 percent in nearly all cases) think that each of these aspects will be negatively affected in their countries, either a lot or some. On average, only 4 - 7 percent of respondents said these aspects will not be affected at all. Across countries, people see the most common effects to be on the likelihood of natural disasters, on rainfall and water resources, and on plant and animal species.
These results show a modest relationship with lack of concern about climate change (see my previous post on the poll—“Who on earth cares about climate change?”): countries such as the US and Russia which scored lower on their perception of the seriousness of climate change also scored somewhat lower on belief that their country will be affected. However, the majority of both Americans and Russians saw climate change affecting their country some or a lot in all these respects.