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Who on earth cares about climate change?

Andrea Liverani's picture

Answers from a multi-country opinion poll  

Does anyone really know what world leaders are thinking about climate change? Well, at least their public statements are covered on TV.  Knowing what common people think is another ball game entirely. Some opinion polls on climate change shed light on public attitudes, but most pay little or no attention to developing countries.

With this in mind, the team working on the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010: Development and Climate Change commissioned a multi-country poll of public attitudes to climate change, which for the first time targeted developing countries with a comprehensive set of questions regarding climate policy.

Our aim was to a) give the public in developing countries voice in a debate often dominated by developed countries’ views, and b) provide decision makers with a tool to assess the state of public views on climate change in their countries. Countries polled include: Kenya, Senegal, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, France, Japan, and the USA.

The poll addresses the following dimensions: a) level of concern; b) beliefs about climate change; c) attitudes towards international cooperation on climate change; d) willingness to bear economic costs to support national actions.  The poll was run between September and November 2009 by the Program on International Public Opinion Attitudes (PIPA) -  an internationally respected polling company.

I will present the findings of the poll on this blog over the next few weeks, starting with people’s level of concern about climate change across the world. The poll’s first question was: “In your view, is climate change, also known as global warming, a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a problem?” The results: people in all countries polled see climate change as a serious problem—either very serious or somewhat serious. 

In low-income countries, the share of people polled who think climate change is a very serious problem are particularly large—75 percent in Kenya, 72 percent in Senegal, and 69 percent in Vietnam. 

Smaller shares of the public in high income countries—the US (31 percent), Japan (38percent), and France (43percent)—saw climate change as very serious. Russia (30 percent) and China (28 percent) also had relatively smaller numbers who consider climate change very serious. 

All the countries with lower shares of their public saying climate change is a very serious problem are also relatively high per capita emitters of CO2. However, even in these high emitting countries, the majority believed that climate change is at least a somewhat serious problem. 

Respondents were then asked whether they thought climate change remained a priority even if climate action entailed costs. “Do you agree strongly, agree somewhat, disagree somewhat or disagree strongly with the following statement:  Dealing with the problem of climate change should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs.”

Half or more of the public in all 14 countries agreed, either strongly or somewhat, that climate change should be addressed even if there are economic costs. Underlying this broad support for dealing with climate change are some clear country differences. 

Vietnam (63 percent), Kenya (53 percent) and Senegal (46 percent) were the countries with the highest proportion saying “strongly agree.”  The US (14 percent), Japan (18 percent) and Russia (18 percent) were the countries with the lowest proportion saying “strongly agree.”  In the US, 46 percent disagreed either strongly or somewhat that dealing with climate change should be a priority if a consequence would be lower growth or job loss. 

The pattern of some low-income countries being willing to support addressing the problem even in the face of economic harm echoes the findings on seriousness of the problem discussed above.



Submitted by Anonymous on
Hi, It would be interesting to know more about the method of selection of respondents - especially in the poorer countries. Best regards, MSF

Submitted by Greg on
for an economist the results on the survey re. distribution of the acceptance of the costs in jobs and slower growth of dealing with the climate change does not make much sense - it would mean that people in the poorer countries,often living at the subsistance level or below, are more prepared to sacrify today's consumption for the long term gains, than people in the better off countries. Anybody can explain this paradox contradicting the marginal utility theory? Or the question was wrongly asked?

There are two posts for college students on climate change and the limit to resources. I wonder if the poll results would differ if the sample were limited to the members of the younger generation who will be in positions of leadership tomorrow: The world is too big to fail but... Consumption and the limit to resources

Submitted by smatth on
As you mentioned, it's very interesting that those most in need of economic growth (low income countries) seem most willing to accept economic harm if it means that we can address the climate change problem. Do you have any idea as to why Vietnam is leading the charge here though? With the high growth rate that they have been experiencing in recent years and their recent proclamation as one of the most desirable destinations for FDI, it would seem that they could truly see stalled growth were global climate change measures enacted. I'm curious as to whether it's just that the population is just that in tune with sustainable development (which in it of itself is fantastic) or there is some other motivating factor?

Submitted by Anonymous on
@Greg My guess would be that people in richer countries tend to realize that the less economic growth and job losses would be for them - they are the ones who will have to pay most to abate emissions. Whereas people in developing countries may see the lost jobs as happening elsewhere. Also, temperate countries like Russia (or even the US) will arguably be hit less severely by climate change than will more tropical countries, so it makes sense for their citizens to be less willing to give up growth. And there is a strong correlation between latitude and income. Obviously general political/cultural attitudes (like American exceptionalism) also play a large part.

Submitted by Andrea on
The question on why poor countries appear to be more concerned than wealthy ones is an interesting one. Indeed, environmental awareness is normally linked to levels of education or percapita income (so in any given country, pollution is a problem for the educated wealthy but less so for the illiterate poor, say). The difference here is that the same issue (climate change) will have differential effects on poor and wealthy countries. (Greg has it right). Poor countries will suffer most because of stronger negative impacts and lack of resources to adapt. Some wealthy countries, particularly those in northern latitudes, might even benefit. The first group therefore seems to be more willing to trade off growth than the second. ....this would make for an interesting research project.

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