Climate Change: Global concern, willingness to act, but continued partisan divide

Date November 17, 2015
Speaker Bruce STOKES (Director, Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center)
Moderator MITSUMATA Hiroki (Deputy Director-General for Environmental Affairs, METI)



Bruce STOKES's Photo


Climate change is a serious issue.

Public opinion research affords an opportunity for conversation. The global public is concerned to varying degrees about climate change, but the data clearly indicate an overall desire for their governments to sign a deal at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of such a deal will not be easy because key countries exhibit deep ideological and partisan differences that will complicate the implementation of any deal achieved in Paris.

Pew Research Center was founded in 1996 and is based in Washington D.C. We are non-profit, non-partisan, and non-advocacy. We believe that our role is to be objective, ask people questions, and enable the citizens of various countries to make up their own minds based on our findings. These findings should not be taken as advocacy on the issue of climate change.

The survey being discussed today was conducted in April 2015 and May 2015 in 40 countries that account for about 76% of the world's population, covering 45,000 people speaking 68 languages. As far as we know, this is the largest global climate change survey ever done in terms of the number of questions and countries. These are nationally representative samples, i.e., they cover both rural and urban areas and reflect the demographies of the respective countries. The margin of error is the standard 3%-4%. Telephone interviews were conducted in places such as Japan, the United States, and Western Europe, while face-to-face interviews were conducted everywhere else--China, India, and so on.

Overall levels of concern about climate change

In China, only 18% of the population say they are very concerned about climate change, which is the lowest proportion in the world. The only other country that's close is Poland, where only 19% are very concerned about climate change. The Brazilians are the most worried. We happened to be surveying in Brazil during a drought so it's not surprising that they would be worried about climate change. People in the western part of the United States are much more worried about drought because of its occurrence in their area. "How serious of a problem do you think this is?" was asked. The answer options were very serious, somewhat serious, not that serious at all, or no problem at all. Only a median of 3% worldwide said it was not a problem. No data indicate that climate denial is widespread, but "climate change is not a problem" accounts for 12% of respondents in the United States. The global median is 54% for the position that climate change is a very serious problem. Concern is greatest in places like Latin America and Africa. Notice that only 45% of Americans say it is a very serious problem; the figure is the same for Japan.

Current and long-term effects of climate change and responses

Another question we asked was, "Is climate change harming people now, will it begin to do so within the next five years, or never?" Latin Americans in particular, but also Europeans and Africans, said that it is harming people now. The Chinese results are interesting. Only 18% said it is a very serious problem, but 49% say it's happening now, which can be interpreted as, "Yes, it's happening, but not to me."

In our third question, we asked, "Are you experiencing this personally?" Only 15% of the Chinese said yes. So, it is not that the Chinese are unaware of the problem; they just are not worried about it.

As for Japan, 71% of the Japanese said climate change is happening now. The Japanese public is very aware. Notice that 60% of Europeans said it's happening now, but only 27% said it is affecting them personally. People in rich countries are aware, but it is not affecting them because they can afford countermeasures, etc.

What would people be willing to do about climate change? The first question was: "As you may know, there will be an international climate change conference in Paris. Do you want your government to sign an international agreement at this conference that would limit emissions?" A median of 78% said yes without knowing what the deal would entail.

We then wanted to know about individual willingness to take action. We asked: "Do you think people will have to change the way they live to deal with the effects of climate change?" Two-thirds of people around the world answered in the affirmative.

We compared this to technological change--the idea that scientists will come up with new technology to save us. Only 22% of people said technology would save us. Only 23% of Americans said that, and we are the most technologically optimistic people in the world based on our surveys.

Relative responsibility for countermeasures

As climate change is a politically charged topic, we asked people, "Do you think that the rich countries, such as the United States, Germany and Japan, should do more to address climate change than developing countries because the rich countries are responsible for so much of the greenhouse gas emissions that are in the air right now, or do you think that developing countries should do just as much as rich countries because they will be responsible for more and more of the greenhouse gas emissions in the future?" This was a very divisive question. Overall, 54% say the rich should do more than the poor, but this really depended on the country.

Perhaps the most important finding in the entire survey is the difference between intense concern and willingness to act in the top six carbon dioxide (CO2) emitting countries. In these six countries, the intensity of concern is relatively low: 18% in China, 33% in Russia, and only 45% in the United States and Japan. Nevertheless, populations in these countries overwhelmingly want their governments to sign a deal at the Paris conference. Overwhelmingly, Indians expressed concern and a desire for their government to sign a deal in Paris.

Japan findings

The Japanese answers were comparable to the global median on some key questions. In a number of cases, the Japanese are less concerned and less willing to act than the global median. A widespread recognition exists among Japanese people that climate change is harming people now and is a global problem. Very strong support exists for the government in Tokyo to sign a deal in Paris: eight in 10 Japanese, higher than the global median, support signing it.

We asked what effects of climate change people believe they are experiencing: drought, severe weather, long periods of unusually hot weather, and rising sea levels. A few things stand out in the results. One is that the most common response is drought. In every region of the world, people tend to say that this is the effect of climate change that they are most aware of.

However, this does vary by country. 45% of Japanese say severe weather. This makes sense as Japan is in the typhoon zone and often experiences severe weather. 31% of the French and the British say rising sea levels. This underscores the fact that we may be surveying what people believe themselves to be experiencing rather than what they objectively are experiencing. National temperature records show which countries are actually getting hotter, and no correlation exists between increasing temperature in a country and people complaining about hot weather. This is not a reflection of fact in a country but, rather, belief; however, sometimes the two align. 50% of Americans say drought, and two-thirds in the far west say drought, but many people in New England say severe weather, and they had record levels of snow last year. There is some connection to objective reality but not in every country. There is not a statistically significant global correlation, however.

76% of Indians say that they are very concerned about climate change, which is very high. People are worried all over Latin America but are relatively unconcerned in the Middle East. The Japanese levels of concern are roughly in the middle among the 10 Asian countries we surveyed. The most concerned are the Indians followed by the Filipinos. The Japanese expressed overwhelming support for signing a deal in Paris, which is comparable to the median in Europe or Latin American, higher than the median in Asia, and higher than the United States, where 69% of Americans want the Obama administration to sign.

Young people are more supportive of a climate deal than older people in many key countries. In the United States, it's a 25-percentage-point difference between young and old. 60% of people over the age of 50 still say sign a deal. That's a good solid endorsement, but 85% of people between 18 to 29 years of age want an agreement. Japan shows no generation gap: eight out of 10 people favor a deal across the board.

When we asked whether rich countries should do more or the same amount as developing countries in dealing with climate change, 58% of Japanese said that developing countries need to do as much as rich countries. This does not agree with the rest of the world, with the exception of the United States. 50% of Americans say that developing countries should do as much as rich countries. In both cases, the public opposes signing a deal under which the rich do more. We don't know how those surveyed defined "developing countries." They may have been thinking about China and maybe India. Frankly, we didn't include China in the question because of widespread anti-China sentiment in Japan and the United States. However, it's safe to say that some respondents were thinking about China. In European countries, by contrast, people said that the rich should do more than the poor.

Young people are more likely than old people to say that the rich should do more. This includes Japan, which registered a 14-percentage-point generation difference on this question. Only 31% of the Japanese say that the rich should do more. Only 34% of Americans say the rich should do more. So, this is a real generational issue in both Japan and the United States. In France and Germany, there is a reverse generation gap. The older people are more likely to say the rich should do more than the younger people.

We also asked whether people believed they would need to make changes in their lives or if they expected that technology would absolve them of having to make such changes. Even in Japan, which has a deep faith in technology, only 36% say technology will save us. 53% say that we are going to have to change the way we live. Two-thirds of Americans agreed, which is surprising considering how deeply they believe in technology.

One of the most interesting results of the entire survey is the broad finding that women are more likely to express a willingness to change their lives than men. Some evidence from academic studies suggests that women are more risk averse than men, and this may be an extension of that. They see the risk and are willing to respond to it by changing the way they live. Men either don't perceive the risk as strongly or are unwilling to change despite awareness of the risk. Men are willing, but women are much more willing.

However, there is not much of a gender gap in Japan on changing lifestyles. It's huge in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, but not in Japan.

Partisan divide

Finally, I think it's instructive to remember that this is a very divisive issue in key countries, both ideologically and along party lines. We asked people in Europe and the United States to place themselves on an ideological spectrum: left, middle, or right. In places like Italy and France, there are huge left-right splits on levels of concern. In the United States, there is a massive 38-percentage-point ideological difference on this issue.

We also asked people what parties they identify with. In the United States, only 20% of Republicans say climate change is a very serious problem, compared with 68% of Democrats. If you wonder why it has been difficult to get climate change legislation through the U.S. Congress, you need to look no further than this result.

On the question of whether the government should sign a deal limiting greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of Republicans say yes (higher than the 20% who expressed that they were concerned), but 82% of Democrats support signing. Finally, only 43% of Democrats believe the rich should do more than the poor. There is no support for this in the United States among either party.

It's very interesting that older Japanese are more likely than younger Japanese to say that climate change is a very serious problem. One would tend to expect it to be just the opposite, but seven in 10 older Japanese say climate change is harming people now compared with six in 10 younger Japanese. A nine-percentage-point gap exists with regard to the respondent's concerns for him/herself personally. Neither old nor young Japanese are really personally worried about being affected by this. Young people in Japan are more likely to say that the rich should do more than the poor, but still only 45% of young Japanese say that.

All of this is available for free and searchable online, including more data than I could cover here.


Q1. The biggest takeaway for me from your presentation was that the Japanese are less concerned, less willing to do anything, but 80% support limiting Japan's greenhouse gas emissions, which sounds pretty selfish. Is this your first research on global climate change? Do you plan to do more on this? On a larger point, to what extent does public opinion affect global negotiations?

I think that you can debate the apparent contradiction between Japanese people being relatively less concerned than other people but still willing to have their government sign a deal.

In terms of the impact of public opinion on the negotiating position, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave an interview in the Financial Times where he basically said the United States will not sign a binding agreement. I was in Brussels right after he said that. Many European officials were very upset by that. Given the results in the United States in terms of the partisan breakdown, it's not surprising that's the position of the U.S. government in the sense that the White House was unable to get the Kyoto Protocol or a carbon tax through Congress. I think our public opinion data on a range of issues shows partisan divisions in the United States are even greater now. This data show huge partisan differences on climate change.

One conclusion that could be drawn is that the White House reads the polls. One interpretation of our data about the United States would be that it shouldn't be expected that the United States would ever sign something it would have to submit to Congress. On whether the rich should do more, if the U.S. position is that it won't do more, it should be believed that it has its own polls which are responsible for that. Even the Democrats don't support that, so it would be hard for the United States to take that position politically. A government shouldn't govern based solely on polls, but governing without recognizing public opinion is a prescription for disaster over time.

Q2. The first question is about the respective responsibility of developed and developing countries. I wonder how your questionnaire was introduced to respondents. Did you explain which countries are rich and which are not? Did you show the cumulative emissions of China, the United States, etc., and future projections for those countries? Second, did you account for media bias? Subscribers to newspaper A may have a different answer than subscribers to newspaper B, for example. As an expert on this issue, different newspapers report very different facts.

I heard the same suggestions in Europe. It would have been wonderful to ask people where they got their information and how closely they are following the issue. Basically, if all of the news on a particular topic is received from a publication or news outlet or TV station that is skeptical of this issue, then one would probably be skeptical too. It would have been good to document that. If we had the space and foresight, we should have done that.

Regarding the other question, we did specify, "the United States, Germany and Japan," as examples of rich countries in the questions. We did not identify the other side, for two reasons. One is that there is a huge debate about how to define China. Second, we were afraid to put "China" in the question and register anti-Chinese sentiment. We didn't want to pollute the question. Often, one person's data is another person's bias. Also, you don't want to in any way influence the answer.

Q3. If I remember correctly, you conducted a similar survey a few years ago. I am very encouraged by the finding that 80% of Americans are now concerned about climate change. Do you think that climate change has been caused by human activities? This makes a big difference. Maybe Americans don't believe it to be caused by human activities. How to correct the situation is completely different. Did you conduct this kind of a survey?

No, you are absolutely right. In the past, only in the United States, we have asked whether a respondent believes this to be manmade or a natural cycle. Many Americans responded that it is natural. The public policy implications of that are really different. If it's just natural, an argument can be made that there's not a whole lot that can be done. We thought about asking such a question, but in a 40-country survey, we made the judgment that it is not as controversial an issue in other countries as it is in the United States. I don't know whether that's true, but looking at the answers to that question in terms of what percentage of people said climate change is not a problem, which might also be the percentage of people who don't believe the science or don't believe this is manmade, etc., it's very small: the median is only 3% around the world, so I think we made the right choice. Frankly, in the United States, 12% say it's not a problem. That's probably a good indicator of what percentage of the population is denying that climate change is an issue. The only country which even came close to that was Australia at 10%. Ethiopia registered 12%, which I am unable to explain. Again, looking at the debates in Australia, the recently ousted prime minister of Australia was in part ousted by his own party for his climate change denial. I do think that it would have been useful to ask this question, and I think we will ask it again in the United States because there are people questioning the science in the presidential primaries, so it would be logical to ask the public whether they agree.

Q4. You compared respondents' belief in technology with their belief in a need for lifestyle change. I have one comment and two questions. Japan has overcome many problems, including pollution and oil crises, with technology. We may tend to depend on technology more than other countries. Your findings may not show a lack of awareness about the need for lifestyle changes; it may simply reflect a preference for technology over lifestyle changes. My first question is whether Asia-Pacific includes China or India. 61% of respondents in these countries said that lifestyle changes are needed. Second, will people really act to change their lifestyles? I used to work on environmental policy review, and I found that many people say it's necessary but very few people really act.

Frankly, we could have posed that question as "technology, lifestyle or both?" The problem with public opinion polls is that if people are given three options, they often take the middle one. Clearly, technology may be needed to enable lifestyle changes. We were trying to find out whether people think that they have to change their own lives. Overwhelmingly, people everywhere said that they accept that they will have to change.

In this survey, Asia-Pacific included India and China. 58% of Chinese and 67% of Indians said that the way we live is going to have to change. The real debate will be over what exactly people are willing to do. We can expect pushback, but we should not underestimate the ability of people to adapt over time. We always underestimate that. There will be opposition at the moment, but over time, it's different. Look at recycling in the United States. People in the 1970s said Americans wouldn't do it. People pointed out that we did it during World War II. Now everybody recycles in the United States. It takes time, but people actually can adapt. Think of Japan and the energy efficiencies you instituted after the oil crisis in the 1970s: more energy efficiency improvements than anywhere else in the world. I bet if you went back to the beginning of the crisis people would have been saying they couldn't do it.

Q5. Poland is an exception, in which the right wing seems more supportive of the climate change issue.

The ideological difference between Germany and Poland is interesting. Germans are very worried and Poles aren't. Poland elected a very conservative party in its most recent elections. Europeans are worried and wonder what the new Polish government's position on climate change will be. We don't know, but we do know from the data that neither the right nor the left is very worried about this issue. They have huge coal resources. Europeans say the argument they get from the Poles is that Russia is a much bigger worry than climate change, and they see coal as a means of energy independence from the Russians. It also seems to show a distrust of whether the Germans will provide them with the energy they need.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.