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Publics Around the World Call for Greater Efforts to Address Climate Change

November 30, 2011

Digest of International Opinion on the Environment
Digest of US Opinion on the Environment
Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage
Stewart Patrick analysis

As representatives of most countries of the world meet in Durban, South Africa to try to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, newly updated digests of American and international public opinion reveal that publics around the world and in the United States say their government should give global warming a higher priority and strongly support multilateral action to address it.

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relations' International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and US polls on the world's most pressing challenges -- and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of international polling on the global environment can be found here and the digest of US polling here. Analysis of these findings by Stewart Patrick can be found on his blog.

Prior to the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, publics worldwide gave robust majority support to the proposal that their government should agree to limit their country's greenhouse emissions as part of an international agreement. A WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO) poll for the World Bank found majorities in all sixteen countries polled saying that at the conference their country should "be willing to commit to limiting its greenhouse gas emissions as part of such an agreement"--on average 87%, including 82% of Americans.

WPO also asked about how much their government is doing to deal with the problem of climate change (2009). A majority in 13 of the 16 countries said their government is not doing enough, with three countries divided. In the average of all countries polled, 63 percent said their countries were not doing enough. The Chinese were higher than the global average, with 77% saying their government is not doing enough, while Americans were below the global average with 58% taking this position. Only very small minorities in all countries said their government is doing too much. Steven Kull, director of PIPA commented, "There seems to substantial support for action."

Across several multi-country polls, covering most of the world's population, a majority in every country polled says that global warming is a problem or a threat. For example, in a 2010 Pew poll of 24 countries, majorities in 23 countries and a plurality in one said global warming is a serious problem--on average, 84%.

A large majority of Americans agree--although this percentage has been declining over the last few years, so that American concern is significantly lower than the global average--70% as compared to 84%. Majorities in most countries, including the United States, believe that climate change is related to human activity.

Majorities in many countries believe climate change is already harming people in their country and, if unchecked, will have negative impacts on many critical areas of life. Among Americans only a minority thinks that they are being affected now, but a large majority thinks that they will be personally affected eventually.

Despite this public consensus about the reality of climate change, only about half of respondents across many countries polled believe that scientists themselves have reached agreement on the need for urgent action on climate change. In the United States only 38% perceive that such scientific consensus exists. Unsurprisingly, those who do not perceive such a consensus are less likely to perceive climate change as a serious threat.

Steven Kull comments, "Those who seek to increase support for action on climate change would do well to work harder to establish the reality of scientific consensus in the mind of the public. It is surprising that people will support as much action as they do, given their uncertainty about the science."

A major point of contention at the Durban conference will be over what role the developing countries should play in the effort to limit climate changing emissions. Among the public, majorities in developing as well as developed countries think that developing countries have a responsibility to limit their emissions. In eighteen of the twenty-one countries polled, respondents rejected the view that "Because countries that are less wealthy produce relatively low emissions per person, they should not be expected to limit their emissions of climate changing gases" in favor of the view that "Because total emissions from less-wealthy countries are substantial and growing, these countries should limit their emissions of climate changing gases," including 68% in China (BBC/GlobeScan/PIPA 2007).

Among most countries--both developed and developing--there is also a consensus that developed countries should provide developing countries with aid to help the latter limit their greenhouse-gas emissions. In all of the twenty-one countries polled a majority or plurality (including 70% of Americans) said that developed countries should provide such aid if developing countries agree to limits on their emissions.

In addition to efforts to mitigate climate change, another issue will be whether the developed countries should assist poor countries with adaptation. In 2009 a WPO poll asked respondents in 16 countries if their country should or should not contribute to international efforts to help poor countries deal with climate-induced changes such as widespread flooding. A majority in 15 countries, including developing ones, said their country should contribute to international efforts to help poor countries deal with the effects of global warming, including 54% of Americans.

To motivate changes in energy usage, publics in most countries are willing to increase the cost of energy that causes climate change. Indeed, majorities in most countries say they would accept increased costs equal to 0.5 percent of GDP. A majority of Americans are willing to accept increases costs of about $20 a month. Majorities also favor requiring increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles and reducing subsidies for private transportation-- even if this increases the cost to the consumer. However, Americans express optimism that increased energy efficiency will bring long-run economic benefits.

The idea of raising taxes on energy from fossil fuels meets with mixed responses worldwide. However, support becomes high, including among Americans, if respondents are told that the resulting tax revenues will be explicitly earmarked to address the problem of climate change, or will be offset by tax reductions elsewhere.

To deal with climate change, majorities in most countries favor limiting the construction of coal-fired plants, even if this increases the cost of energy. To reduce reliance on oil and coal, large majorities favor creating tax incentives to encourage alternative energy sources and requiring automakers to increase fuel efficiency. Views are more mixed on building new nuclear power plants. Majorities also support preserving or expanding forested areas to create carbon sinks.

Publics around the world in recent years have largely disapproved of how the United States is handling the problem of climate change. In general, the United States has been most widely seen as the country having the most negative effect on the world's environment, followed by China. Germany has received the best ratings.


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