Public opinion

A cross-national view

Authored by: Steven R. Brechin

Routledge Handbook of Climate Change and Society

Print publication date:  July  2010
Online publication date:  July  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415544764
eBook ISBN: 9780203876213
Adobe ISBN: 9781135998509

10.4324/9780203876213.ch10

 

Abstract

As government leaders across this globe still seek to find a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, it is appropriate to explore the views of the general public, cross-nationally, on global climate change. What is their level of concern? How well informed are they? What general policy alternatives do they seem to support? In short, what generalisations, if any, can we make about the public’s appreciation of and willingness to address this critical global issue and how might we explain the patterns in the findings?

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Public opinion

Introduction

As government leaders across this globe still seek to find a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, it is appropriate to explore the views of the general public, cross-nationally, on global climate change. What is their level of concern? How well informed are they? What general policy alternatives do they seem to support? In short, what generalisations, if any, can we make about the public’s appreciation of and willingness to address this critical global issue and how might we explain the patterns in the findings?

Until the publication of the 1992 Health of the Planet Survey 2 by the Gallup International Institute (Dunlap et al. 1993), there had never been a cross-national probability survey representing views on the environment of the public in both industrial and indus-trialising countries. 3 Two of the early comparative academic national public opinion studies, specifically on climate change, were by Richard Bord et al. and Riley Dunlap, both in 1998. Bord et al. examined results from selected cross-national studies, augmenting their own US mail survey. Dunlap’s analysis used results from only six of the 24 countries of the 1992 Health of the Planet Survey. In 2003, I published a follow-up article and drew primarily from two larger datasets released in 1999 and 2001 by Environics International (a private, international survey research organisation, now called GlobalScan) supplemented with data from a study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change (a non-governmental Washington organisation) (Brechin 2003).

Numerous studies have followed. A 2007 WorldPublicOpinion.Org study, International Polling on Climate Change, reviewed 11 relatively recent cross-national studies (WorldPublicOpinion.Org. 2007). Likewise, Anthony Leiserowitz has contributed significantly, including a 2007 cross-national study for the United Nations Development Programme (Leiserowitz 2007). Our understanding of this subject has thus improved considerably, but with important gaps in countries surveyed and understanding of patterns and variance.

I explore here research from five new studies, representing 51 different countries (see appendix for a complete list). The discussion will begin briefly with our early understanding, followed by current findings, including public support for various policy alternatives and concluding with emerging patterns from the data, continued uncertainties, and next steps for research.

Review of early studies

This section begins with some of the key findings from three early studies: Dunlap 1998, Bord et al. 1998, and Brechin 2003. What these pioneers added were larger samples and comparative country-level, probability analysis to complement a number of more qualitatively based and limited investigations of lay people’s and policy-makers’ perspectives on global climate change, largely in wealthier northern countries (see Bell 1994; Bostrom et al. 1994; Kempton 1991; Kempton et al. 1995; Lofstedt 1991, 1992, 1993; Read et al. 1994).

In 1998 Riley Dunlap published a study based on data from the Health of the Planet survey. However, an expanded instrument, focusing exclusively on global climate change, was provided for only six of the full 24 countries: Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Portugal and Russia. He found, as had Kempton earlier (1991; Kempton and Craig 1993; Kempton et al. 1995), that while the lay public were concerned, they rated other environmental problems as more serious, including air and water pollution, but especially the hole in the ozone layer. The public admitted limited knowledge and typically blamed pollution and CFCs as the main sources of the problem. Few identified the burning of fossil fuels as a major cause. Most believed climate change would largely have ecological consequences. Very few saw concerns for human beings such as agriculture or public health.

In the same year, Bord and colleagues (Bord et al. 1998) collected data from a unique 1997 US mail survey. Limited cross-national results were peppered in from particular published articles, including the Health of the Planet survey, as well as others. They too found limited concern but growing appreciation, especially in the US, with a sustained summer heatwave and congressional hearings on the topic in 1988. Both early writings showed a public concerned about environmental issues (but with climate change near the bottom of that list), a flawed understanding of its causes, and a narrow ‘willingness to pay’ to address the problem.

In 2003, I showed that the public, in countries studied, seem to have improved their understanding over the earlier findings of Bord et al. (1998) or Dunlap (1998), but the numbers remained relatively low. Interestingly, there were no significant differences in climate change knowledge between richer and poorer countries. In fact Mexicans, with 26 per cent correctly selecting the burning of fossil fuels as the primary anthropogenic cause of global warming, led all 15 nations surveyed in the 2001 Environics International study of warming. US citizens were tied with Brazilians at 15 per cent. In short, levels of development and education did not seem to have a striking impact on levels of knowledge, but this depends in large part, of course, upon which countries are included and the questions asked. US respondents were less supportive of the Kyoto Protocol than European respondents who backed it in large numbers. This difference in the levels of support was explained later by research on conservative political efforts, orchestrated disinformation campaigns, and the George W. Bush presidency which affected the US public’s support for the treaty (see Brechin and Freeman 2004; McCright and Dunlap 2003; see also Chapter 14, this volume).

Over the past ten years or so more countries have been studied, and respondents today are found to be better informed about the fossil fuel sources of warming – considerable progress. The lack of some north–south divides continues. As awareness has grown so has willingness to support various policy responses and to pay for them.

Growing environmental concern and knowledge

The 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project contains only a few questions on the environment, but is unique in offering insights into 47 countries. (National Geographic 2008; see also appendix). Figure 10.1 highlights the growing concern for the environment, compared to several other global issues, from 2002 to 2007. The percentage of respondents indicating that pollution and the environment were the top global threat 4 increased in 30 countries, declined in three, was unchanged in two, with trend data missing from 12, a greater gain than for any of the other threats chosen: the gap between rich and poor; spread of nuclear weapons; AIDS and disease; and religious and ethnic hatred. Urban Brazil led, with a 29 per cent increase in concern for the environment from 2002 to 2007. Several reports have suggested that Brazil has become one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world today (see National Geographic Greendex 2008). Japan had the highest absolute score, however, with 70 per cent listing pollution and environment as the greatest global threat.

Growing concern over environmental problems

Figure 10.1   Growing concern over environmental problems

In the same study, publics from only 37 countries were asked specifically how ‘serious a problem’ was global warming. As shown in Figure 10.2, considerable majorities in 25 of the 37 countries labelled global warming a ‘very serious’ problem. Urban Brazil and Bangladesh led with 88 per cent and 85 per cent respectively agreeing. Only in 12 nations did more respondents indicate that global warming was only ‘somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a problem’. The exceptions, however, were important. In both the US and Great Britain fewer considered global warming to be a very serious problem than thought it not serious at all. The same was true for Russia and Poland. Urban China too was a part of this list of exceptions. Hence three of the most important countries in the global climate change debate – China, the US and Russia – lacked considerable public concern compared to their counterparts internationally. Only in one major greenhouse gas emitter, urban India, did a majority of its public (57 per cent) view global warming as a serious problem. These are troubling results. As the world’s publics seem to become more concerned about the environment and global climate change, the major producers of greenhouse gases appear to be among the least concerned. As we shall see later, however, respondents from China appear to be the most willing to support policies to combat global climate change. How can one explain these contrasts?

How serious a problem is global warming?

Figure 10.2   How serious a problem is global warming?

Most important national problem

In 2008, National Geographic teamed up with GlobeScan to conduct perhaps the most thorough 14-country cross-cultural study ever conducted on self-reported consumer behaviours affecting the environment. They call this effort ‘Greendex’ 5 and 2008 was their baseline year. The ‘most important problem’ question is one of the more well-established open-ended questions in survey research. The ‘consumers’ 6 simply volunteer an unprompted answer to ‘What is the most important national problem?’ The responses were collapsed into nine different categories: economic; political; environment/climate change; unemployment; social security; crime/violence; healthcare; poverty/homelessness; terrorism/war.

Economic problems ranked highest for the 14 countries with 22 per cent of all ‘consumers’ volunteering this response. France led all countries with 49 per cent followed by the US at 39 per cent. The average proportion of all ‘consumers’ placing ‘environment/climate change’ as the most important of the nine issues was 8 per cent, tied for third place with ‘unemployment’. Australia, however, led all countries, with 36 per cent of ‘consumers’ volunteering that ‘environment/climate change’ was the most important problem facing the nation. By all standards for such a question this is an extraordinarily high proportion. 7 Japan was second with 20 per cent of the ‘consumers’ volunteering environmental problems. In short, environment/climate change problems made a significant showing among these 14 countries (Figure 10.3).

What is the most important national problem?

Figure 10.3   What is the most important national problem?

Source: Greendex, 2008

Climate change concerns among young people aged 12–18 years

In October 2008, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released unprecedented results from a survey of young people’s views on climate change (UNEP/GlobalScan 2008). 8 Twelve-to 18-year-olds from five countries (Brazil, India, Russia, South Africa and the United States) were asked a number of direct questions and statements about it. These items included their level of concern about climate change and whether or not world leaders should do whatever it takes to tackle it. Not unexpectedly, the young people surveyed were clearly concerned. Overall, 85 per cent of the youth were at least somewhat concerned, 58 per cent ‘very concerned’. Only 10 per cent were not. Of the five countries surveyed, the highest concern was found in Brazil, where 82 per cent of the young respondents indicated that they were ‘very concerned’ about changes to our climate. This was followed by respondents in South Africa (66 per cent), India (54 per cent), USA (52 per cent) and Russia (36 per cent). In Russia an additional 34 per cent were also ‘somewhat concerned’ (see Figure 10.4). These results are higher than for their adult counterparts discussed above.

How concerned are young people?

Figure 10.4   How concerned are young people?

Source: United Nations Environment Programme, October 2008

Regarding the statement ‘World leaders should do whatever it takes to tackle climate change’, 88 per cent of the young people overall agreed, while only 10 per cent disagreed. Once again Brazil’s youth led the pack with 95 per cent of their teenage respondents agreeing with the statement. Russia was once again the lowest country of the five but still with 85 per cent agreeing (no figure shown).

Similarly, on the question whether or not ‘World leaders are doing enough to address climate change’, young people of South Africa (82 per cent), the US (79 per cent) and Brazil (73 per cent) were especially critical of world leaders regarding their inadequate efforts to stem warming. In a major departure from their counterparts in the other four nations, only 19 per cent of the young people of India thought that world leaders were not doing enough to fight, while 40 per cent thought they were doing too much (no figure shown).

On whether or not major steps were needed, 69 per cent of young people surveyed overall believed that major steps in action would need to be taken very soon to successfully combat climate change. An additional 24 per cent agree that at least modest steps will need to be taken in coming years. Once again the young people of India lagged behind the other teens with a majority of respondents indicating that it was necessary to take only modest steps in addressing climate change (no figure shown).

Large majorities in all five countries, including India, believed that they could make a difference. This indicates some optimism about the will necessary to address a problem which their generation will inherit (see Figure 10.5).

Can young people make a difference to climate change?

Figure 10.5   Can young people make a difference to climate change?

Source: United Nations Environment Programme, October 2008

Clearly there is concern by young people about the menace of climate change and the desire to make things happen. There is strong support for greater global leadership in four of the five countries surveyed. One must speculate whether young people, more than their parents, feel that climate change will directly affect their lives and those of their future children. If one believes more in cohort effect than maturation effects in individual attitudes and behaviours (e.g. Cutler 1969), one might be more optimistic about our future chances in addressing this critical issue. The youth of Russia, however, seem to take after their more sceptical parents than in the other countries surveyed.

Public familiarity with and knowledge about global climate change

In 2007 the BBC World Service commissioned a poll on citizen thoughts and concerns about climate change in 21 countries (BBC 2007a). 9 One question from this study asked respondents if they had heard or read about global warming or climate change. Only in six of the 21 countries (US, Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy and Australia) had more than half of the respondents heard/read a ‘great deal’ about it: Large pluralities of citizens in most countries had heard/read at least ‘some’ thing about it. In three countries a majority said they had heard/read ‘not very much’ or ‘nothing at all’ about climate change. These were: (urban) Indonesia, Russia and Kenya at 65, 64 and 53 per cent respectively. Kenya led all countries with 22 per cent indicating that they had heard/read ‘nothing at all’ about climate change. For familiarity with the topic, people in poorer countries report being less familiar with climate change than those in richer countries 10 (see Figure 10.6). Russia (a consistent outlier among the more developed countries) has relatively poor familiarity.

Have you heard or read about global warming?

Figure 10.6   Have you heard or read about global warming?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

Anthropogenic sources of climate change. This same study asked respondents whether or not human activity was a ‘significant’ or ‘not a significant’ cause of climate change. There was general recognition that human activity was significant. Among the 21 countries, the overall averages were slightly over 75 per cent agreeing that human beings play an important role in warming the planet compared to only 14 per cent who did not. Respondents from Mexico, Spain, Italy and (urban) South Korea recorded at least 91 per cent agreement with the statement that human activity is a significant cause of climate change. Only those from (urban) India (47 per cent) had fewer than half agreeing with that statement. Thirty-two per cent of Indians did not know. At 71 per cent, the US had almost the lowest agreement with that statement and the highest percentage (24 per cent), who believed that human activity is not a significant factor. Only in (urban) Egypt were respondents (33 per cent) even more sceptical of the role of human beings in climate change than in the US (no figure shown).

Detailed knowledge about climate change. In the same 14-nation National Geographic study cited earlier, researchers found significant ‘consumer’ knowledge about the environment, including climate change. On the question ‘What is the primary cause of recently measured increases in the earth’s temperature?’ 65 per cent of all respondents from the 14 countries answered the question correctly, ‘increased levels of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere’ (no figure shown). This is a relatively high response compared to earlier surveys mentioned above. Japan led all nations with 79 per cent, followed by Brazil at 78 per cent. US respondents were at the bottom of the list of countries with only 53 per cent knowing (or agreeing with) this as the primary cause of the Earth’s rising temperature. Urban India was at 54 per cent. Noteworthy, however, is that the ozone hole in the atmosphere was a very distant second choice. This is a real improvement compared to earlier studies. Still, this question does not directly ask about energy consumption and the burning of fossil fuels.

On a more detailed question about carbon dioxide release from various fuels: ‘In general, which fuel produces the most carbon dioxide gas when burned?’ the results were strikingly different. The overall average for all 14 countries dropped to 46 per cent giving the correct answer of ‘coal’ compared to ‘oil’, ‘natural gas’ and ‘wood’. Australian consumers led all countries with 64 per cent correctly identifying coal as the fuel that generates the most carbon dioxide when burned. Unexpectedly, Brazil was at the bottom of the group with only 15 per cent correctly identifying the source. For a change, US consumers were at the 14-country average of 46 per cent, along with urban India (see Figure 10.7).

Which fuel produces most CO

Figure 10.7   Which fuel produces most CO2?

Source: Greendex, 2008

Compared to findings from Brechin (2003), based on 2001 data, these results demonstrate a substantial increase in the public understanding of the role of fossil fuels and their particular sources in contributing to the greenhouse effect. As noted earlier, the numbers attributing climate change to the ozone layer decreased substantially. In short, these results suggest, encouragingly, that considerable learning about the sources of climate change has taken place over the past seven years or so.

Public support for policy alternatives and climate change action

In this section, I explore the publics’ views on several policy alternatives and the need for action.

Major steps needed to combat climate change. On the question whether or not steps should be taken to reduce human activities that may be causing climate change, another 2007 BBC study asked respondents in the same 21 countries to agree with one of the three following statements: it is, (1) ‘necessary to take major steps starting very soon’, (2) ‘necessary to take modest steps over the coming years’, and (3) ‘it is not necessary to take any steps’. Nearly 69 per cent of all respondents from the 21 countries supported the first statement. Spain led all countries with 91 per cent agreeing. Italy, France and Mexico were the other top supporters. Once again, (urban) India recorded the lowest support for statement (1) with only 37 per cent in support. Only an overall average of 6 per cent of support was found for statement (3): ‘it is not necessary to take any steps’. Germany, (urban) South Korea and Russia led all countries in support of statement (2): ‘necessary to take modest steps over the coming years’ with levels of support at 45, 45 and 44 per cent respectively. Clearly the overwhelming majority in these countries believe that steps need to be taken to reduce human impact upon climate change (see Figure 10.8).

What steps are needed to combat global warming?

Figure 10.8   What steps are needed to combat global warming?

Global equity considerations. 11 How do respondents in these same 21 countries feel about reducing emissions in both wealthy and less-wealthy countries alike? Should less-wealthy countries with substantial and growing greenhouse emissions limit them along with wealthy countries? Should less-wealthy, low-emissions-producing countries not be expected to limit them? Which position is seen as more equitable or appropriate? The results are found in Figure 10.9. Perhaps surprisingly, majorities in 14 of the 21 countries supported the first option, that is, all countries should reduce their emissions regardless of their wealth. What is interesting is that (urban) China, (urban) Indonesia and (urban) South Korea supported it, while five relatively poorer countries and Italy (42 per cent) did not.

Should poorer countries limit emissions if wealthy countries assist them?

Figure 10.9   Should poorer countries limit emissions if wealthy countries assist them?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

In response to the idea that wealthy countries should provide ‘less wealthy countries financial and/or technological assistance’ in return for lower emissions, the support was enthusiastic with an overall average of 73 per cent. Only an overall average of 18 per cent did not. Urban India, at 47 per cent, was the only country with less than 50 per cent approval. Thirty-five per cent in this important country did not know or did not answer (no figure shown).

In summary, then, there appears to be considerable agreement that all nations, whether wealthy or poor, especially those with rising levels of greenhouse gases, should limit their emissions. At the same time there was even greater support for providing poorer nations with either financial or technical support in limiting their production of gases.

Public support for energy alternatives and conservation. In November 2008, a 21-country World PublicOpinion.Org. study was released exploring public support for alternative energy sources and energy conservation. A list of the countries is found below. 12 The main statement focused on whether or not the respondent’s country should emphasise four options: (1) ‘Installing solar and wind energy systems’; (2) ‘Modifying buildings to make them more energy-efficient’; (3) ‘Building coal-or oil-fired power plants’; (4) ‘Building nuclear energy power plants’. The statement read: ‘I would like you to consider different ways to deal with the problem of energy. For each one please tell me if you think our country should emphasise it more, less, or the same as now.’ The overall results are found in Figure 10.10.

Support for alternative energy and conservation

Figure 10.10   Support for alternative energy and conservation

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

Regarding option 1 (‘more solar and wind energy systems’) there was overwhelming support in 20 of the 21 countries surveyed with an overall average of 77 per cent wanting more emphasis on them. South Korea was highest with 89 per cent of the respondents in agreement. Kenya and Germany were tied for second with 88 per cent. The one exception was Russia where only 50 per cent of their respondents were supportive (no figure shown).

For option 2 (‘Modifying buildings to make them more energy-efficient’) an overall average of 74 per cent of the respondents wanted more emphasis on this alternative. France and Britain led the group with 89 per cent supporting this option. Italy followed with 88 per cent. The Palestinian Territories and India tied for the lowest level of support at 54 per cent each. Indonesia and Nigeria were right with them at 55 per cent each. At first glance these results might suggest an income effect, but Mexico, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand and Kenya were each in strong support of this option as well (no figure shown).

Option 3 (‘Building coal-or oil-fired power plants’) changed things somewhat. Here a lower score would be seen as providing more support for combating climate change. The overall average support was 40 per cent for more emphasis on building fossil fuel power plants. However, only 33 per cent of all respondents selected ‘emphasising less’! In only one country, Germany, did a majority of the respondents, 62 per cent, want to place less emphasis on coal-and oil-fired power plants. The US was at 49 per cent. This suggests that while the public understanding of climate change has generally increased over the years, many remain uninformed or at least less sympathetic to alternative energy sources. In short, many lay publics still do not fully understand the role the burning of fossil fuels plays in climate change or find the need for more electricity or industrial activity more important. This lack of understanding or different priorities seems to have impacted upon public support for this third policy option (see Figure 10.11).

Support for building coal-fired plants

Figure 10.11   Support for building coal-fired plants

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

The final alternative, option 4 (‘Building nuclear energy power plants’) likewise illustrates mixed opinions. Historically, environmentalists have given nuclear power generation the ‘evil eye’. For those concerned with providing carbon-friendly electricity on a large scale, however, nuclear power has regained some of its former lustre. Forty per cent on average say ‘emphasise more’ nuclear power plants; 30 per cent say less, while17 per cent indicated that they would like to see nuclear power remain the same. Not surprisingly, the German public that has long fought nuclear power led all those in opposition, with 62 per cent emphasising less. This is in sharp contrast to China where 63 per cent indicated that they wanted more emphasis on nuclear power. Jordanians were 58 per cent in support. Significantly, 41 per cent of respondents from nuclear-friendly France, a country where over 75 per cent of their current electricity comes from nuclear power (Bodansky 2004: 18), indicated that they wanted less emphasis; while 32 per cent said ‘same as now’ (see Figure 10.12).

Support for building nuclear energy power plants

Figure 10.12   Support for building nuclear energy power plants

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2007

Personal sacrifice, higher costs or taxes and climate change. None of the statements above regarding these general policy options mentioned any type of costs to their implementation. In the next choice of statements from this same WorldPublicOpinion.Org. study, the researchers did just that. ‘Do you favour or oppose the government requiring utilities to use more alternative energy, such as wind and solar, even if this increases the cost of energy in the short run?’ Sixty-nine per cent of the respondents overall favoured this statement. Ninety-six per cent of the respondents from South Korea favoured this option while only 36 per cent of the Russians favoured it, the lowest figure of all, while the same amount opposed it (see Figure 10.13).

Support for requiring utilities to use alternative energy, even at higher cost

Figure 10.13   Support for requiring utilities to use alternative energy, even at higher cost

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

The second option stated: ‘Requiring businesses to use energy more efficiently, even if this might make some products more expensive’. Overall, 58 per cent of respondents favour this action while 31 per cent oppose it. Only in Mexico, Russia, Azerbaijan and Indonesia did more respondents oppose this statement than favour it. Do the publics from these oil-exporting countries have an issue with energy conservation measures? The only major oil-exporting country not on this list was Nigeria; it missed the cut-off point, however, by only a few percentage points, 49 per cent in favour and 46 per cent against. Feared or actual economic decline could be seen as another type of cost for addressing climate change (see Figure 10.14).

Support for more efficient use of energy, even at higher cost

Figure 10.14   Support for more efficient use of energy, even at higher cost

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

Option 3 read: ‘Having an extra charge for the purchase of models of appliances and cars that are not energy-efficient’. Here only 48 per cent overall favoured this option while 39 per cent opposed it. Italy led all countries in favouring this option with 69 per cent support; the Palestinian Authority and Mexico led all countries opposed with 58 and 57 per cent respectively (see Figure 10.15).

Support for charging more for appliances and cars that are not energy efficient

Figure 10.15   Support for charging more for appliances and cars that are not energy efficient

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

Finally, another question was asked separately that focused on wind and solar energy costs. It read: ‘As you know, there is some controversy about the possibility of making a major shift to alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar. Which view is closer to yours? (1) This would cost so much money that it would hurt the economy; or (2) With the rising costs of energy, it would save money in the long run’. Overall, only 21 per cent of the respondents from all countries agreed with option 1, while over 66 per cent agreed with option 2. Of interest, majorities in all but one of the countries surveyed agreed with option 2, that alternative energy would be a good long-term investment. Only 45 per cent of Russian respondents agreed with the statement (see Figure 10.16). The unsupportive nature of Russian respondents may reflect the country’s growing wealth from fossil fuels or simply limited understanding, or some combination of the two.

Would wind and solar power cost more in the long run?

Figure 10.16   Would wind and solar power cost more in the long run?

Source: WorldPublicOpinion.Org, 2008

Not unexpectedly, placing statement options that included associated costs affected enthusiasm for several of these policy options. Still, respondents overall provided considerable support for them, especially the long-term benefits of wind and solar energy alternatives. There might be more of a consensus on the part of publics cross-nationally to tackle these difficult choices than policy-makers may currently believe.

Using data from a second 2007 BBC World Service Poll, 13 we continue to explore respondents’ willingness to make personal sacrifices. The poll from 21 countries found that ‘most people were ready to make personal sacrifices’ to combat climate change (BBC 2007b: 1). Overall, 83 per cent of the respondents agreed that it will be necessary for citizens in their respective countries to ‘make changes in their lifestyle and behaviour’ to reduce emissions. On this question, Spain led all countries with 68 per cent of their respondents agreeing that changes would be ‘definitely necessary’. An additional 24 per cent said ‘probably necessary’. Other leaders were Mexico with 64 per cent, Canada 63 per cent, Italy 62 per cent and, perhaps surprisingly, (urban) China with 59 per cent stating that changes to lifestyle and behaviour would be ‘definitely necessary’. Poorercoun-tries such as Nigeria, (urban) Egypt and Kenya had the highest totals of respondents who thought that changes would not be necessary at 33, 28 and 25 per cent respectively. The US at 19 per cent had the highest percentage of respondents from wealthier countries who thought that changes would not be required (see Figure 10.17).

Will citizens need to change their lifestyles and behaviour to reduce emissions?

Figure 10.17   Will citizens need to change their lifestyles and behaviour to reduce emissions?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

In turning to energy costs, the 2007 BBC survey found divided support for the need to increase the cost of non-renewable energy sources to reduce their use. The question read: ‘Will the cost of energy need to increase so individuals/industry use less?’ Once again there was no clear split between richer and poorer nations. Their citizens rejected the idea altogether in only a handful of countries. Only in Nigeria, Italy, Russia and (urban) Philippines did at least 50 per cent of the respondents think it unnecessary (probably or definitely) to increase the cost of energy. Citizens of (urban) South Korea were evenly split at 49 per cent each for necessary and unnecessary. The citizens of China, Australia and Canada were most supportive of the 21 countries with 57, 42 and 39 per cent of respondents respectively saying ‘definitely necessary’. Overall, at least 80 per cent of the citizens of (urban) Indonesia, (urban) China and Australia thought it necessary to increase the cost of energy so that we would all use less (see Figure 10.18).

Will the cost of energy need to increase so that individuals/industry use less?

Figure 10.18   Will the cost of energy need to increase so that individuals/industry use less?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

How do respondents from the BBC’s 21-country study feel about higher energy taxes to stem climate change? Here the results become more complicated, partly because the survey asked follow-up questions with alternative framings. On the general question, ‘Would you favour or oppose raising taxes on the types of energy, such as coal and oil/ petrol, that most cause climate change in order to encourage individuals and businesses to use less of these?’, the response categories were divided. The overall level of support from the 21 countries is at 50 per cent (BBC 2007b: 3). Among individual countries, (urban) China once again led all nations with 85 per cent favouring taxes. This is followed by Australia, (urban) Chile and Germany at 61, 61 and 59 per cent respectively. Respondents in 11 of the 21 countries failed to support such taxes, with less than 50 per cent in favour, including US, (urban) Brazil, Spain, France, Italy, Russia, (urban) Turkey, (urban) Egypt, (urban) South Korea, (urban) Philippines and (urban) India. Italy had the lowest support at 35 per cent (see Figure 10.19).

Would you favour raising taxes on coal or petrol to encourage less use?

Figure 10.19   Would you favour raising taxes on coal or petrol to encourage less use?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

To test different tax policies, the BBC study asked those who did not support general tax increases if they would accept them with two different conditions: (1) if tax revenues generated from the increase would be used specifically to increase energy efficiency or the use of cleaner sources of energy; or (2) if the tax increases were offset by lowering other taxes so that the overall tax burden remained the same. Interestingly those surveyed were much more willing to pay higher taxes to curb the use of fossil fuels, if other taxes are reduced to balance out the difference, or if the taxes collected went towards improving efficiency/renewable energy sources. The differences between a carbon tax that would increase general government revenue and the two other alternatives were dramatic. Only an average of 49.9 per cent of the respondents in the 21 countries supported a carbon tax as such. Only eight countries were above 50 per cent in public support. These were: (urban) China, 85 per cent, Australia, 61 per cent, (urban) Chile, 61 per cent, Germany, 59 per cent, Canada, 57 per cent, (urban) Indonesia, 56 per cent, Great Britain, 54 per cent, Nigeria, 52 per cent. Least supportive was Italy at 35 per cent. However, when respondents are given the option of the tax revenues being dedicated to improved efficiency or renewable energy, public support for the measure jumps by nearly 27 per cent, to an overall average of nearly 77 per cent. Interestingly, it is respondents in Italy who show the greatest jump in support, up 43 per cent to a total of 78 per cent in support. Once again, (urban) China leads all nations with 97 per cent of its respondents in support of higher taxes for efficiency or alternative energy sources. Australia was second with 87 per cent in support followed by Spain at 86 per cent support. It is significant that respondents from (urban) Brazil and (urban) India provided the lowest (but still high) country totals at 65 and 60 per cent respectively.

The second alternative, namely higher carbon taxes being replaced by lowering other taxes, was also well supported by the public. Here the overall level of support jumped from the original 49.9 per cent approval of a carbon tax to an overall average of 75.5 per cent approval for the lowering of other taxes to offset the investment in reducing carbon use. This is a nearly 26 per cent increase and very close to the 27 per cent increase found with the first alternative. There were seven countries where the alternative increased respondent approval by 30 per cent or more: (urban) Turkey, (urban) Egypt, Italy, Russia, France, (urban) South Korea and Germany. The countries most supportive overall of this measure were (urban) China at 95 per cent, Germany at 89 per cent, (urban) Indonesia 85 per cent and Canada at 81 per cent. Respondents in Mexico and the US, however, showed the lowest support relatively speaking for this second alternative. Both had an overall approval of a still impressive 64 per cent.

These results clearly show that the vast majority of people in all the 21 countries surveyed would be generally supportive of a tax on carbon if either the revenues raised were devoted to reducing emissions or if other taxes were reduced by an equal amount. Overall support for a carbon tax jumped from around 50 per cent without either of these conditions, to over 75 per cent approval if one of these two alternatives were pursued. These findings should be very encouraging to environmentalists and of interest to policy-makers (see Figure 10.20).

Would you favour carbon taxes if balanced by reduction in other taxes?

Figure 10.20   Would you favour carbon taxes if balanced by reduction in other taxes?

Source: BBC World Service Poll, 2007

Conclusion: understanding patterns and raising practical and theoretical questions

These cross-national findings show growing concern about climate change, improved understanding of the problem itself, and strong support for various policy alternatives to address it. These are encouraging trends. Likewise, the number and range of studies on public attitudes and knowledge continue to multiply. We know more about more countries than ever before, but there is much more to learn. In particular, a key question emerging is how to explain the national variations. The differences do not always appear to be simply based upon levels of economic development or education. For example, we do know that in countries where respondents admit to knowing less about climate change, including India, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan (see too Leiserowitz 2007: 4), they tend to be less supportive of alternatives policies, but these results were not consistent with all findings.

Curious patterns were found in Figure 10.2 as well. While concern about climate change seems to be increasing in most countries surveyed, the respondents in the US, Great Britain, Russia and (urban) China were among the least concerned. This is quite troubling given that these are some of the most important emitters. While respondents from (urban) China were among the least concerned, they were among the most supportive of policy alternatives to combating the problem. While (urban) India was among the more concerned, the respondents here were among the least supportive of policy alternatives. How can these patterns be explained? Does a relatively low level of concern represent feelings of optimism towards our collective abilities to respond or does it reflect more the long-term nature of the problem itself (see Brechin 2008)? Or is it based on something else? Does unwillingness to support alternatives rest on misunderstanding the problem or worries over material costs, or something yet to be identified?

The other major concerns are more issues of country coverage and methodology. While I was able to find questions covering public attitudes in 55 countries, most of the more detailed explorations focused on the same dozen or two, with a broader focus on the wealthier, more developed countries. These countries have the more widely available means for carrying out survey research. For most studies, we miss large sections of the African Continent, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Few countries in the Arab world are surveyed in detail. The urban-only-based samples were located in several of the most important populous and high-emitting countries such as China and India as well as Brazil, Indonesia and South Korea. Future efforts should attempt to focus on obtaining national probability samples from these countries. This, however, will be difficult to do from a practical point of view and very costly to implement. We can only assume that both the level of policy knowledge and support would drop significantly if rural areas were included in these studies; but without data this is only speculation. Perhaps urban populations are more politically active and may be in a better position to shape public policies. We just don’t know.

Another important future project is to understand better the socio-political and cultural contexts for the data that exist. Recent US research has provided a good understanding behind the relatively low numbers found among Americans (see e.g. Fisher 2004; Gelbspan 1997; Kempton et al. 1995; Dunlap and McCright 2008; see also chapters 3, 14 and 25, this volume). However, what about the context for China? We seem to know relatively little about what shapes public views (but see Chapter 26, this volume). Without China on board regarding climate change, little will be gained. Russia is also an incredibly important country. Why the relatively low levels of concern or policy support? Does it have to do with lack of information, discussion or awareness? Is this the result of government crackdown on civil society actors and critical views? Or is Russia’s profile rooted more in material self-interest, given that Russia has become a major producer of oil and natural gas? Perhaps global warming seems to offer benefits to a cold country, especially for sparsely inhabited and cultivated Siberia.

Likewise, in recent years, Brazil has become one of the most green-conscious nations in the world according to recent studies by National Geographic. How can one explain this important transformation? The world’s most populous democracy, India, seems to be a complete mystery. The public seem to be consistently disengaged from the issue of climate change, while those of its neighbour, Bangladesh, are very concerned. Is this difference one of greater poverty or more perceived risk?

A larger question is how well public understanding and concern translate into policy action by governments. There is an ongoing debate about this relationship (see Clawson and Oxley 2008). Clearly, public opinion plays a more vital role in democracies than authoritarian states, but even here the translation is complex. The experiences of the US provide a clear example of how powerful vested interests can politicise science, misinform the public, reshape public opinion, and affect the public policy process. Can the public sector and an extremely active civil society increase citizen interest in India or hinder it? How best can support be generated? What impact, if any, does relatively low citizen interest have on elected policy-makers in India? And for China, can public support for climate initiatives be translated into political action by government? Important work is needed here.

There are more conceptual questions. Are the processes that shape public concern in one country similar to those in other countries? Do particular objective events, such as prolonged droughts, fires or unexpected weather jolt the public into consciousness and action? Such events seem to have changed the public views found in Australia (PMSEIC Independent Working Group 2007). Do these events have a long-lasting or only temporary impact? Has this translated into meaningful action? Do connections to ideological groups counteract or reinforce direct experiences and, if so, how? How might public information about and concern for climate change diffuse? Might one utilise World Society Theory to explain the global diffusion of public concern and public policies towards global climate change (e.g. see Frank et al. 2007; Meyer et al. 1997) or do states play a more critical and contested role than global diffusion seems to allow (see Buttel 2000)? In addition, it is unclear precisely how institutional processes would influence public opinion, if at all, since most work has focused on particular events and actions. Would public opinion be an antecedent or consequence? With that said, it is likely that the IPCC reports themselves have provided a focal point for the global discussions by other international and domestic scientific, educational and media organisations, but there appears to be relatively little written on how these processes might influence public opinion.

Still, might more simple explanations apply, such as whether popular media influence views of individuals (see Chapter 11, this volume)? For example, has the 2004 block-buster movie The Day After Tomorrow improved public understanding or eroded it? Similar questions could be asked about the impact that former US Vice President, Al Gore, has had upon public opinion throughout the world via the many presentations of his now famous PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, along with his 2006 documentary of the same name. In short, what actions most influence public opinion? Norton and Leaman (2004) suggest that these types of media events shape public views, but likely additional work should be done on this, especially on long-term impacts.

Finally, what conceptual frameworks best capture the place of global climate change in the hearts and minds of individuals across the globe? Can universal frameworks be found or developed? Or will we find that frameworks are too context-specific, that local social, political and cultural experiences are too dominant to be universal? For example, can risk perception be applied effectively across different states, cultures and peoples? What is our cross-cultural understanding of risk perception? While exploring data from several states in the US, Dietz et al. (2007) found several factors that influenced support for climate change policy. Trust in environmental organisations and scientists and less trust in market-based organisations seem to translate into greater support for climate policies. Similarly, results of this particular study showed that those individuals who supported climate policies tended to be from higher-income, minority and older citizen groups. These supporters also tended to be more altruistic, future-oriented and liberal in their political views than those who were less supportive. Would we find similar or very different results in other countries? If different, what does that say about individualised factors affecting support for public policy? In short, how local or global can our efforts be in understanding the public’s role in shaping the responses to climate change? I believe this is a critical question that needs to be explored. The answer to this question has enormous consequences, I argue, for how we as a collective and world community organise responses to this critical global challenge.

Notes

I must acknowledge Bernadette White, who helped me track down some of the key literature used in this chapter. Jacqueline Smith assisted with developing the figures. Both are sociology graduate students, Maxwell School, Syracuse University. Sebastien Frisson provided key technical support. Constance Lever-Tracy provided essential support and patience.

The Health of the Planet Survey obtained results from 24 countries. As a generalisation, the results showed strong public support for the environment among citizens of most countries, rich and poor alike.

See Dunlap et al. (1993), Brechin and Kempton (1994) and Dunlap and York (2008) for thorough explanations as to why international cross-national probability surveys were seen as unimportant before these data were collected.

The study was conducted via face-to-face and/or telephone interviews from April to May 2007. The percentages reflect a combination of both their first and second choices. Samples in Bolivia, Brazil, China, India, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, South Africa and Venezuela were disproportionately urban-based.

The 14 countries in this study were Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Spain and the USA. They represent 55 per cent of the world’s population and include seven of the 11 most populous nations globally. The margin of error is +/–3.1 percentage points within a 95 per cent confidence internal.

The researchers intentionally call the respondents ‘consumers’. For the sake of consistency I do the same when discussing the results from this particular study.

Environmental concerns had been in the news in Australia owing to wildfires affected by droughts and heatwaves. Another possibility would be that the researchers in Australia indicated to potential respondents that this was an environmental survey. This would have framed the problem beforehand as well as encouraging social desirability responses.

These were results from online surveys conducted by GlobeScan for UNEP in October 2008 (data collection period ranged from 13 to 23 October. GlobeScan assures that the sampling is representative of young people with computer connections within their respective nations. For India, the sampling was limited to large cities in selected states as is typical for survey research in that country. In spite of these methodological issues of likely biases towards young people from families of higher means and greater opportunities than some, this is a unique set of results reasonably collected.

Polling was conducted either by phone or face-to-face between May and July 2007. Urban-only samples were drawn from Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. The survey was implemented with the assistance of the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes and GlobeScan.

See also Leiserowitz (2007: Figure 1, p. 4) for the same general trend but different values for some of the same countries.

I was unable to find any recent cross-national data on respondents’ concerns over intergenerational equity.

This WorldPublicOpinion.Org poll was conducted either face-to-face or by telephone, in 21 nations, during the summer of 2008. For the US an internet survey was conducted. The nations studied were China, India, US, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia, Argentina, Azerbaijan, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Jordon, Kenya, Mexico, the Palestinian Territories, Poland, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey and Ukraine. The data are derived from national probability samples, except for Argentina which is urban-based.

Polling was conducted either by phone or face-to-face between May and July 2007. Urban-only samples were drawn from Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Philippines, South Korea and Turkey.

References

BBC (2007a) ‘All countries need to take major steps on climate change: Global Pol.’. News Release. BBC World Service Poll in cooperation with PIPA, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland and GlobalScan, 25 September.
BBC (2007b) ‘Most would pay higher energy bills to address climate change says Global Pol.’. News release. BBC World Service Poll in cooperation with PIPA, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland and GlobalScan, 5 November.
Bell, A. (1994) ‘Climate of opinion: public and media discourse on the global environment’, Discourse and Society, 5: 33–64.
Bodansky, D. (2004) Nuclear Energy: Principles, Practices, and Prospects, 2nd edn, New York: Springer.
Bord, R.J. , Fisher, A. and O’Connor, R.E. (1998) ‘Public perceptions of global warming: United States and international perspectives’, Climate Research, 11: 75–84.
Bostrom, A. , Morgan, M.G. , Fischhoff, B. and Read, D. (1994) ‘Does concern about global warming equal a willingness to sacrifice?’, Risk Analysis, 14: 959–970.
Brechin, S.R. (2003) ‘Comparative public opinion and knowledge on global climatic change and the Kyoto Protocol: The US versus the World?’, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, 23: 106–134.
Brechin, S.R. (2008) ‘Ostriches and change: a response to sociology and climate change’, Current Sociology, 56: 467–474.
Brechin, S.R. and Freeman, D. (2004) ‘Public support for both the environment and an anti-environmental President: possible explanations for the George W. Bush anomaly’, The Forum, 2(1). Online. Available HTTP <http://www.bepresss.com/forum.>.
Brechin, S.R. and Kempton, W. (1994) ‘Global environmentalism: a challenge to the postmaterialist thesis’, Social Science Quarterly, 75: 245–269.
Buttel, F.R. (2000) ‘World society, the nation-state, and environmental protection: comment on Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer’, American Sociological Review, 65: 117–121.
Clawson, R.A. and Oxley, Z.M. (2008) Public Opinion: Democratic Ideals, Democratic Practice, Washington, DC: CQ Press.
Cutler, N.E. (1969) ‘Generation, maturation, and party affiliation: a cohort analysis’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 33: 583–588.
Dietz, T. , Dan, A. and Shwom, R. (2007) ‘Support for climate change policy: social psychological and social structural influences’, Rural Sociology, 72: 185–214.
Dunlap, R. (1998) ‘Lay perceptions of global risk: public views of global warming in cross-national context’, International Sociology, 13: 473–498.
Dunlap, R. and McCright, A. (2008) ‘A widening gap: Republican and Democratic views on climate change’, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 50: 26–35.
Dunlap, R. and York, R. (2008) ‘The globalization of environmental concern and the limits of the postmaterialist values explanation: evidence from four multinational surveys’, The Sociological Quarterly, 49: 529–563.
Dunlap, R. , Gallup Jr., G.H. and Gallup, A.M. (1993) The Health of the Planet Survey: A George H. Gallup Memorial Survey, Princeton, NJ: Gallup International Institute.
Fisher, D. (2004) National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime, New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Frank, D.J. , Longhofer, W. and Schofer, E. (2007) ‘World society, NGOs and environmental policy reform in Asia’, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 44: 275–295.
Gelbspan, R. (1997) The Heat is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover Up, New York: Basic Books.
Kempton, W. (1991) ‘Lay perspectives on global climate change’, Global Environmental Change, 1: 183–208.
Kempton, W. and Craig, P.P. (1993) ‘European perspectives on climate change’, Environment, 35: 16–20, 45.
Kempton, W. , Boster, J.S. and Hartley, J.A. (1995) Environmental Values in American Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Leiserowitz, A. (2007) International Public Opinion, Perception, and Understanding of Global Climate Change, Human Development Report 2007/2008, Human Development Office Occasional Paper, UNDP.
Lofstedt, R.E. (1991) ‘Climate change perceptions and energy-use decisions in Northern Sweden’, Global Environmental Change, 1: 321–324.
Lofstedt, R.E. (1992) ‘Lay perspectives concerning global climate change in Sweden’, Energy and Environment, 3: 161–175.
Lofstedt, R.E. (1993) ‘Lay perspectives concerning global climate change in Vienna, Austria’, Energy and Environment, 4: 140–154.
McCright, A. and Dunlap, R. (2003) ‘Defeating Kyoto: the conservative movement’s impact on US climate change policy’, Social Problems, 50: 348–373.
Meyer, J.W. , Boli, J. , Thomas, G.M. and Ramirez, F.O. (1997) ‘World society and the nation state’, American Journal of Sociology, 103: 144–181.
National Geographic Greendex (2008): ‘Consumer choice and the environment – a worldwide tracking survey’, National Geographic and GlobeScan, Pew Research Center (2007) ‘Global unease with major world power’, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 27 June. Online. Available HTTP.: <http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=256.> Accessed 25 May 2009 .
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Read, D. , Bostrom, A. , Morgan, M.G. , Fischoff, B. and Smuts, T. (1994) ‘What do people know about global climate change: survey studies of educated laypeople?’, Risk Analysis, 15: 971–982.
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Appendix A

  Complete List of Countries by Datasets

2007

2007

2008

2008

2008

PEW

BBC1

WorldPublicOpinion.Org

Nat. Geo.

UNDP

Argentina

x

x

Australia

x

x

Azerbaijan

x

Bangladesh

x

Bolivia

x

Brazil

x

x

x

x

Bulgaria

x

Canada

x

x

x

x

Chile

x

x

China

x

x

x

x

Czech Rep.

x

Egypt

x

x

Ethiopia

x

France

x

x

x

x

Germany

x

x

x

x

Ghana

x

Great Britain

x

x

x

x

Hungary

x

India

x

x

x

x

x

Indonesia

x

x

x

Israel

x

Italy

x

x

x

Ivory Coast

x

Japan

x

x

Jordan

x

x

Kenya

x

x

x

Kuwait

x

Lebanon

x

Malaysia

x

Mali

x

Mexico

x

x

x

x

Morocco

x

Nigeria

x

x

x

Pakistan

x

Palestinian Ter.

x

x

Peru

x

Philippines

x

Poland

x

x

Russia

x

x

x

x

x

Senegal

x

Slovakia

x

South Africa

x

x

South Korea

x

x

x

Sweden

x

Spain

x

x

x

Tanzania

x

Thailand

x

Turkey

x

x

x

Ukraine

x

x

Uganda

x

USA

x

x

x

x

Venezuela

x

52

Note:

Notes:

  Only a maximum of 52 countries out of an overall total of 195, including Taiwan, [http://wiki.answers.com] have been surveyed at least to some degree. More detailed surveys are from much smaller sample of countries. This represents only a fraction of the total number of countries. Still, these 52 countries represent the vast majority of humans on the planet. Hence, the results tend to capture the ‘most important’ countries based on population and overall contribution to greenhouse gas production. Countries missing from most studies include most of Africa; Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Arab world. The 2007 PEW study was an exception.

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