The Washington Post
People increasingly see climate change as a personal threat, new poll finds
Majority of responders in 17 nations say they would make changes to help
Nearly three-quarters of residents of countries with some of the world’s most advanced economies worry that climate change will one day create suffering in their own lives, according to a far-reaching survey published Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.
The findings, based on responses from a representative sample of nearly 20,000 people in 17 countries spanning North America, Europe and Asia, underscore growing concerns about global warming — and how even wealthy nations can no longer avoid the worsening consequences.
“There are multiple data points showing that people do seem to be increasingly concerned about this issue on a global level,” Jacob Poushter, a co-author of Tuesday’s report and associate director of research at Pew, said in an interview.
He noted that concerns about the personal impacts of climate change have increased significantly in most countries surveyed, although not in the United States, since the organization last posed the question in 2015. The survey was completed in the spring, before a devastating summer season that brought climatefueled wildfires, heat waves, droughts, floods and extreme storms to many parts of the world.
Eleni Myrivili, chief heat officer for Athens, an official tasked with helping the Greek capital adjust to mounting heat waves and their effects, noted that Pew’s data showed that even before the summer fires, 87 percent of Greeks were concerned about the personal impact of climate change, despite a lack of government action on the issue. “It shows the distance between what people think and what politicians have been doing up to now,” Myrivili said.
In Germany, where catastrophic flooding this summer that killed more than 180 people, the share of the population “very concerned” about the personal impact of climate change increasing by 19 percentage points to 37 percent between 2015 and 2021 — the greatest increase seen in any country.
Brigitte Knopf, secretary general of the Berlin-based Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, said that even before the floods, a summer heat wave in 2018 had demonstrated that climate change is “not something happening in the far future.”
Tuesday’s survey also found that the vast majority of people in the 17 nations surveyed — a list that includes South Korea, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Singapore — say they would be willing to make at least some changes to how they live and work to help tackle the problem. That includes about three-quarters of Canadians and Americans.
But at the same time, mixed views persist on international efforts to slow the Earth’s warming, and whether policies to that end would harm economies around the world. In a small number of countries, including Japan and to a lesser degree in the United States, concern about the personal harm caused by climate change declined between 2015 and 2021, Pew found.
Overall, Tuesday’s survey adds to mounting evidence that in many parts of the world, people increasingly see climate change as a looming economic and security threat, but lack consensus on the best ways to solve it.
“People broadly would like to make changes, but when you get down to the specifics and tradeoffs, sometime it gets a little stickier,” Poushter said.
The findings come two years after a Washington Post-kaiser Family Foundation poll from 2019, which found that a solid majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — believed human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half said urgent action was necessary to avoid worsening calamities.
At the same time, fewer than half of those polled at the time believed that tackling climate change would require them to make “major sacrifices.”
Pew’s latest survey data suggests that people in some countries share similar concerns. Only 55 percent of people in Japan was found to be willing to make changes to their lifestyle to fight climate change, the lowest of all nations surveyed.
“You certainly don’t get an urgency for climate action here,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
In Sweden, just 44 percent of people say climate change would affect them personally — the only country where less than half feared the personal effect of climate change. However, a large majority, 85 percent, are willing to make changes to their lifestyle to combat environmental damage.
“These are attitudes that matter for politicians and the level of ambition in climate policies they introduce,” said Asa Persson, deputy director of the Stockholm Environment Institute. “Climate policy still has high support.”
While the Pew survey highlights the growing global worries over climate change, it also offers a glimpse into the demographic and political differences that transcend international borders. In both Sweden and Germany, prominent young female activists — Greta Thunberg and Luisa Neubauer — have helped rally support for climate action.
In general, young people expressed more worry about the personal effects of climate change than their older counterparts. Women largely expressed more concern than men. And those on the left of the political spectrum generally showed more willingness than those on the right to take personal steps to help reduce the effects of climate change.
That last divide is pronounced in the United States, where Pew found that people who identified as liberal are more than twice as willing as those on the ideological right to alter their lives in the name of climate action.
No other nation polled had an ideological divide on climate change as great as that of the United States. In South Korea, large majorities across the political spectrum viewed climate change as a significant personal threat, with 90 percent of liberals and 84 percent of conservatives concerned about the threat to their own lives.
Kang Won-taek, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, said increasingly hot summers and cold winters, as well as the yellow dust storms coming from China, have made many Koreans feel they are already experiencing the impacts of climate change.
As leaders from across the globe prepare to gather at a key United Nations climate summit this fall, Tuesday’s poll found varied levels of faith in that international effort.
While respondents maintained a mostly positive view when asked about their country’s performance on combating climate change, less than half on average expressed confidence that actions taken by the international community would slow the impacts of climate change.
The majority of people in most countries surveyed also hold a positive view of the United Nations and its action on climate. But that is clearly not the case in the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters — China and the United States.
Adults around the world who say the United States is doing a good job dealing with climate change are in the minority. A median of 3 percent of respondents said the country, which withdrew from the Paris climate accord under President Donald Trump and rejoined this year under President Biden, is doing a very good job.
Most Europeans surveyed think the United States is doing a bad job on climate, with 75 percent of Germans and Swedes. At least a quarter of respondents in Europe, aside from the United Kingdom and Greece, described the U.S. handling of climate change as “very” bad.
China, which accounts for nearly a third of global emissions, fares even worse. A median of 18 percent of those surveyed say China is doing a good job on climate, compared with 78 percent who say the opposite.
“There are especially negative views of U.S. and China,” Poushter said. “That is maybe not surprising, but is a bit of a problem for trying to get something done.”
He added that the ongoing pandemic prevented Pew researchers from polling citizens in additional countries where such surveys are typically conducted face to face, including India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and several African countries.