The BBC World Service have a Globescan poll of attitudes towards climate change in 23 different countries. In each country they asked how serious a problem people thought climate change was, and whether people supported action to address it “even if it hurts the economy”. I’m not a great fan of questions asking how serious a problem something is, but it’s still useful to see comparisons between countries.

Comparing the different countries surveyed, the most concerned about climate change were South American countries, the Phillipines and Turkey, where 80% or more of the public thought it was a very serious problem. The countries were the fewest thought it was a serious problem were the two African countries surveyed (Kenya and Nigeria), Pakistan and India, Russia and the USA. In all these countries less than 50% thought it was a very serious problem. In the UK 59% thought it was very serious.

The second question of whether people would support government action to combat climate change had surprisingly little correlation. The Phillipines and Turkey, two of the countries were people were most likely to view climate change as a serious problem, were also two were comparatively few people supported government intervention (only 32% and 49% respectively). The African countries Kenya and Nigeria were some of the least likely to view it as a serious problem, but had some of the highest levels of support for government action (77% and 68%).

52% of US respondents said they supported government action to fight climate change, the lowest of all was Pakistan on only 19%. 70% of UK respondents said they supported government action to fight climate change, the fourth highest. The highest of all was China with 89%, though I suspect that may be a cultural thing. In fact, I suspect a lot of the differences we see here may be down to different political traditions and viewpoints (and probably different attitudes towards answering the questions – there are vast differences in the proportions of don’t knows for example) rather than just attitudes towards climate change.

UPDATE: Note that the BBC compares the changes in the poll since 1998 when Globescan first did it. They have actually done more recent waves in 2006 and 2003 – see the results here. On average the countries that were surveyed in both 2006 and 2009 still show an increase in the perceived seriousness of climate change, but in many Western countries, including the UK, France, Germany and USA, the proportion of people saying climate change in a serious problem has fallen.

UPDATE2: There was also a climate change question in the YouGov Sunday Times poll – 21% of respondents thought that “the planet is warming and human activity is mainly responsible”, 62% thought that the planet was warming and human activity is partly responsible, but there were also other factors. 8% thought that the planet was warming, but it was nothing to do with human activity and 4% thought the planet was not warming at all.

22 Responses to “Global poll on climate change”

  1. Also, perhaps, the proximity of other dangers – you might not describe climate change as a ‘serious problem’ if you’ve got very serious problems of your own piled on you. But still see it as something the government ought to address.

    Meanwhile in Pakistan the government has quite a lot else on its plate to deal with at the moment..

  2. Depressing to see the anti-science campaigns getting traction.

    Denial is a dirty word, but personally I think many people are in denial not in the Holocaust sense but in the cod psychological sense.

    The evidence grows more and more convincing, the predictions worsen, and the psychological incentive to say it isn’t happening grows.

  3. It’s a much more nuanced debate that many of the polling gives credit for. There are at least six different viewpoints:

    1. Global warming is not happening (the classic “denial” position)

    2. GW is happening but it’s not a permanent trend and when sunspots or whatever change then we’ll be in a cooling phase so leave things be (the Nigel Lawson position)

    3. I don’t much care whether or not GW is happening and how much is man-made – that’s nature for you. Actually I’m more worried about running out of fossil fuels so it makes sense to improve insulation and turn down the thermostat (as much to save money as to save the planet). And by the way, why aren”t we tackling over-population? (The seventies “Limits to Growth” green position).

    4. GW is happening, is probably man made but it’s not sensible to try and stop the inevitable – the best we could do is postpone it for a few more years. Instead we should spend the money on adapting to the changes (a position typified by Bjorn Lomberg in “The Skeptical Environmentalist”)

    5. GW is happening, is largely man-made and we have to develop clever technologies such as carbon capture to allow us to maintain our lifestyle while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions (the Copenhagen consensus)

    5. GW is happening, is largely man-made and we have to dramatically change the way we live in order to reverse it (the “I was a communist, now I’m a green” position).

    So it’s next to impossible to make sense of this and similar polls where the questions are much cruder, and imply that adopting any one of positions 1 to 4 makes you a denier/skeptic.


  4. I suspect that a big reason for the growth of CC denial is the emphasis that’s been placed on global solutions. Global action seems so vast and so fraught with arguments, weak compromises, and finger-pointing that I think a lot of people just switch off from it. With regards public opinion, it would probably be better if governments focused on domestic actions rather than huge global initiatives.

    CC denial is also assisted by some of the spin put on global warming, eg the over-emphasis on carbon emissions, the repeated claim that Westerners are the biggest per capita carbon emitters when in fact Qatar and Dubai top the league. If you spin some parts of the debate, people tend to assume that you’re also spinning other parts.

  5. The Globescan poll questions seems to leap from ‘Is climate change serious?’ to ‘should governments tackle it?’, assuming that if it’s serious it can be tackled (i.e. it’s largely man made). I feel that other polls which ask the middle question (is it man made?) are more illuminating of public opinion.

  6. @James Ludlow – To add to what you said, I would also say the hysterical approach by much of the green movement is also a major turn off. I say this as a committed environmentalist and someone who runs a successful environmental consultancy business. I saw a snippet from a PR film launched at Copenhagen today with an image of a screaming child hanging from a dead tree branch above a raging sea. I know what they were trying to say, but frankly I thought it was pathetic and absolutely counter productive. When I speak to clients and potential clients I try to explain how I think their business will be affected physically by climate change and other environmental issues, how this might change the economic and legislative arena, what steps they should consider and where there might be business and marketing opportunities arising from the new situations. I always say there are doubts and question marks and a range of possibilities and that the key is to become more aware, use it to become more efficient (always a good business practice) and make sure your business is robust and adaptable. I never talk about all the children drowning.

  7. Wierd questions.

    A meaningless Poll.

  8. @ Leslie

    Position 7: Climate changes, global warming is probably happening and human activities are contributing…..but probably not significantly. Other than maybe building tougher flood defenses in some places, we should ignore it. Bad luck Maldives, congrats Canada.

  9. @Alec

    Couldn’t agree more. I recently had a viewing of “The Age of Stupid” the premise of which is that if we don’t mend our ways the planet will be devoid of mammalian life (including man) by 2050. The discussion that followed was much along the lines of “things are so bad that what is the point of doing anything at all”, exactly the opposite reaction intended to be generated.

    And it always irritates me that the very same people who condemn coal-fired power stations get up in arms at the prospect of carbon-free nuclear power, as though the human race deserves some punishment for its excesses. There’s a definite mindset that seems to think there’s something immoral about getting out of this situation using technology – that we should all go back to some imagined pre-capitalist paradise instead. That’s not to say that we can go on regardless – I can’t see unlimited petrol-driven driving nor flights as being sustainable – but we don’t have to adopt a hairshirt mentality either.

  10. Oh, and main thing…cultural differences, I really think the supporting govt action thing is down to that. Break the american vote down by democract/republican and see what happens.

  11. @Wood

    I think your position 7 is essentially what Bjorn Lomberg is saying i.e. similar to my position 4. Clearly if there is a significant rise in sea levels then some actions will be needed. But I think many people while agreeing with that position would also agree that unless we also reduce carbon emissions we are continually fighting a losing battle again the waves.

  12. @Leslie, I think the difference is the ‘Climate changes’ part. I tend to look at the climate change in the long term, where even if humans were having 0 effect on the climate the icecaps will eventually melt anyway (hopefully)….so we should stop wasting our time on a Canute and make sure we don’t get our feet wet.

    This is rather off topic even by the standards of normal off topic stuff round here of course…..but anyways, yeah, your point is undeniable, the poll simply isn’t very useful as views on climate change don’t generally come in yes/no versions.

  13. Actually reading point 4 again it is pretty damn close aye.

  14. It’s obviously good not to pollute the planet or burn up resources unnecessarily, and I live that way – e.g. I’ve had low-energy light bulbs since the 1980s when they cost £10 each.

    However a lot of the hype about global warming seems highly suspicious to me.

    For instance, if the situation is so desperate why is aircraft fuel still subsidised when compared to car fuel? And why is there a conference in Copenhagen, when they could have had a video conference?

    Why are the climate scientists so cagey about their raw data? NASA as well as the Hadley Centre are refusing to release their data.

    How can we trust the climate models when they can’t even predict the weather a month or two ahead (remember the ‘barbecue summer’ prediction?).

    Also, in the seventies scientists were widely proclaiming that we were heading for an imminent ice age.

    So while I’m prepared to go along with reasonable measures to save fuel etc, I wonder who is making money/political power/scientific kudos etc out of this.

    Leslie summed up the various positions very lucidly, and I guess I’m number 3, with a healthy dose of cynicism and distrust of governments added in.

    I’m just surprised that so few people are ‘deniers’ given the lack of evidence of any real warming as far as I know. Half a degree or whatever could easily be in the margin of error of the instruments used 20 years or more ago.

  15. @ Pete B, I suspect among those who pay more attention to these things, there are more so called deniers than you’d think.

  16. @Pete B

    Some of your points are valid (e.g about aircraft fuel and video conferencing), but others seem to have come from the Denier’s Handbook, so just to answer in brief:

    “How can we trust the climate models when they can’t even predict the weather a month or two ahead?”

    I can’t predict what you’ll be doing tomorrow, but I can tell you exactly what you’ll be doing in 100 years’ time!
    In any case, climate and weather are entirely different things.

    “Also, in the seventies scientists were widely proclaiming that we were heading for an imminent ice age.”

    The “widely” part is the myth. This was never the majority consensus.

    “Half a degree or whatever could easily be in the margin of error of the instruments used 20 years or more ago”

    20 years ago is 1989, not the Stone Age. Besides which, a variety of methods are used to gather historical temperature data, not just old records.

    Finally, “distrust of governments” is an interesting one as governments have been among the last to join the climate change bandwagon… even now they seem to be doing so reluctantly.

    I think I’m a bit off-topic, but I’m genuinely surprised that people on this site, which generates a lot of intelligent and level-headed discussion, could be so influenced by myths and distrusting of the overwhelming scientific consensus.

    Scepticism is a good thing, and I’m happy to concede that there COULD be another explanation for the phenomena we are experiencing, but it’s beyond me how anyone could think that man-made global warming isn’t by far the most LIKELY one.

  17. @ Yariv, it’s not the nutty youtube vids of solarpanel conspiracies, or the ‘ice age 70s’ myth…it’s the science itself, and the inbuilt conflict of interest of the IPCC. I am far from a professional scientist, but there seems to be a lot of bad science going on….and while not a conspiracy as such, there is a lot of censorship, shouting down, foul play….aimed at the ‘deny’ camp which really looks bad.

  18. @Wood

    Granted there is some censorship, bad science and rude treatment of sceptics/deniers going on, and there are also of course some people on the warming side of the argument who have vested interests or are trying to make a quick buck. But the same can be said about any global issue, and there is no more inherent conflict of interest at the IPCC than there would be at any equivalent body.

    And that’s before I even mention the bad science, censorship and vested interests of the denial side.

    But no amount of bad science or wrongdoing by individuals could possibly negate the wealth of evidence all pointing in the same direction and the fact that the people studying it are close to unanimous in their conclusions.

    It’s not unreasonable to be irate at some of the coverage and politics of the issue, but that is no reason to doubt the science. And you should also be angry at those on the denial side who keep repeating the points you raised in order to spread doubt, despite the fact that they are either very easily answered or simply not true.

  19. @Wood

    Sorry, I meant the points that PETE raised.

  20. Leslie,

    Those who oppose nuclear power aren’t against technology, they just don’t want to make the same mistake twice.

    They take the view that we need a system that is sustainable and doesn’t push the problem on to future generations so we can live well today.

    There opposition to coal and nuclear are essentially the same, both have a byproduct that in the long term is difficult to control and damages the environment.

    For them the important message isn’t that “the polluter pays” but that if you don’t pollute no one has too.


  21. Moving on from the responses Yariv gave, which all seem satisfactory to me, I’d answer the air fuel and Copenhagen questions thusly:

    Air fuel is subsidised because politicians want to keep their constituents flying, because if it gets too expensive they don’t want to be blamed. There’s also the hangover from state ownership of airlines, lobbying, conflicts of interest and all the other usual political morasses.

    As for Copenhagen, what’s the point of a summit if you don’t get to shake hands with Obama and pose before the camera as the saviour of the world? Leaving aside issues like the need for the G77 to form common negotiating positions and the added social ease of face-to-face communication, politicians always want a triumphant and photogenic summit. Video-conferences are hard for journalists to cover and aren’t photogenic.

    Yes, I too am a sceptic, just not about climate change. Merely about politicians and the legislative process.

  22. @ Pete Cairns – there’s also the objection that nuclear tends to require a large subsidy. Leave aside the CND crowd and you have a lot of sceptics on purely economic grounds.