Globally, climate change drives a willingness to change lifestyles

Enlarge / Climate change is increasing the incidence of extreme rains, ensuring that more people are directly noticing its effects.

This year has seen a host of weather-related disasters, from hurricanes to droughts and from fires to floods. Amid the chaos, the IPCC released the first installment of its latest climate report, charting how our current choices will shape the future of the planet. All of this would seem like a good time to check public opinion on climate change.

Unfortunately, one of the best sources for such records, the Pew Research Center, did your most recent survey on the subject way back in february. The survey of industrialized economies shows a strong and growing concern that climate change will affect people personally and a willingness to make changes to avoid the worst of its impacts. Still, due to the timing, opinion has likely changed even more since then.


Pew surveyed people in 17 different industrialized economies in North America, Europe, and around the Pacific Rim. Obviously, developing economies, which may have the biggest impact on the future climate trajectory, are left out, as well as China. But the survey provides some perspective on public opinion in countries that are actively pursuing policies to tackle their carbon emissions.

Most of the survey questions were asked on a four-option scale, and people were able to express degrees of agreement, including “not at all,” “a little,” “somewhat,” and “a lot.” Usually each of the two positive and negative options were grouped together.

The top-of-the-line results are pretty clear. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed were somewhat or very concerned about personal injury due to climate change. And an even higher percentage (80 percent) were willing to make lifestyle changes to limit the impacts of climate change. However, on average, there are mixed feelings about whether global society is doing everything it should, with only 56 percent feeling that we are doing a good job and 52 percent not confident that we will end up doing everything we need to. .

Not everyone is convinced that climate change will be a notable problem in their lifetime.

Not everyone is convinced that climate change will be a notable problem in their lifetime.

Pew Research

However, as you can see from the graph, there was considerable variability between countries. European countries were among the most and least concerned, while the United States, Canada, and most Pacific Rim countries were within these extremes. (The exception is South Korea, which has the world’s most worried population.)

In some countries, Pew had data from five years earlier to compare. These data indicated that Germany saw the highest growth in climate concern (up 19 points), and all other EU countries where data was available also saw growth. By contrast, concern that you will be personally affected decreased in the US and Japan, albeit only slightly.

In all countries except Greece and South Korea, those in the 18-29 age group were the most concerned about suffering personal injury from climate change. The gap between them and those over 65 was greatest in Sweden (gap of 40 points) and New Zealand (31 points). Meanwhile, the gap was lowest in the UK (11 points). Women were also 10 points more likely than men to worry in most countries.

There was also a left / right split, and the Liberals were more likely to expect damage. You would be surprised to know that the gap was largest in the US, with a difference of 59 points between the left and the right, followed by Australia, where the gap 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 somewhat or very willing to make changes in their lives that would help reduce carbon emissions. Within the EU nations, Italy saw the highest readiness (93 percent), and the absolute minimum was 69 percent, seen in the Netherlands. The United States, Canada, and most Pacific Rim countries were somewhere in between these extremes, with the exception of Japan, where only 55 percent were willing to make changes. As before, the younger age group was more likely to be willing to change, as were those with higher levels of education.

It should be noted that, in many countries, more people were willing to make changes than they felt would likely be personally affected, suggesting that there is a degree of altruism involved here.

When asked who is doing a good job in tackling climate change, the EU (63 per cent felt it was doing well) and the UN (56 per cent) were generally given high marks. Most of the people surveyed, however, felt that the United States was not doing its best (61 percent rated its performance as bad), and only 18 percent said China was doing a good job. The US public had the highest ratings for their performance, but even those were underwater, with only 47 percent suggesting that the US was doing a good job responding to climate change.

Many people are convinced that their own country is doing a decent job on climate change.

Many people are convinced that their own country is doing a decent job on climate change.

As the graph here shows, most countries had a fairly realistic and mixed view of how well their country was doing in tackling climate change. In general, conservatives were more likely to say that their country was doing a good job, and the gaps between conservatives and liberals were widened again in the United States and Australia.

While many people were confident that the international community was doing well, most lacked the confidence that it would be able to do enough. In four countries, South Korea, Singapore, Germany and the Netherlands, less than half of those surveyed doubted our collective ability to control things. In all other countries, the number was half or more.

Finally, people were asked whether addressing climate change would be a net economic gain or loss or would make little difference. In general, the plurality was that climate change was neutral, and those who thought it would be a benefit outweighing those who expected economic harm. The answers here were complicated. France saw the lowest profit expectation, but was in the middle in terms of expecting damage. Meanwhile, the US had the highest expectation of harm, but was in the middle of the group in terms of population size expecting economic gains.

The perfect time?

A growing number of studies now indicate that we have to make rapid progress over the next two decades if we still hope to keep atmospheric carbon levels below the point where they would drive two degrees of warming. The survey results show some indication that the public is close to being ready to support tackling that challenge, with younger generations substantially more willing than their elders.

But that provision is not uniform, and there is some political polarization that may make doing so challenging in countries like the United States and Australia.

And again, the vote came before a series of dramatic weather events, some of which have been directly linked to climate change. It is possible, although sadly not guaranteed, that having more people directly affected by climate change actually results in an increased sense of risk.

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