Americans are less worried about climate change than almost anyone else

September 27, 2013

The climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have released a sweeping new report on global climate change, and the implications are pretty scary. My colleague Brad Plumer looks at the report in detail, but the big takeaway seems to be we're on a path toward temperatures, and thus sea levels, rising.

The report is a reminder that the world's leading greenhouse gas emitters, the United States and China, are doing little to combat it. Which is, in turn, a reminder that people in both countries can sometimes view climate change reports such as this one with greater skepticism than do people in other countries.

It's worth putting that skepticism into context. Just how seriously do Americans and other nationalities take the threat of climate change? Pew actually sought to answer that question earlier this year, with a big study on attitudes around the world toward various global threats. Here's a chart showing attitudes toward climate change in a few dozen countries. Americans are some of the least likely in the world to call climate change a "major threat," and are ranked 33rd out of 39:

When Pew ran the survey, they asked people in 39 countries about eight different threats. People in almost every country ranked climate change as the biggest threat of those eight. In the United States, people rank it sixth – ahead of only "Pakistani political instability" and the United States itself.

According to Pew, 40 percent of Americans call climate change a "major threat." The people most concerned about climate change are the Greeks, 87 percent of whom call it a major threat; so do 85 percent of South Koreans, 76 percent of Brazilians and 74 percent of Lebanese. The average, among the surveyed countries, is 54 percent.

Americans divide closely along partisan lines on the issue. According to Pew, only 22 percent of self-identified Republicans call climate change a major threat, but the number among self-identified Democrats is 55 percent, just above the survey's global average. In comparative terms, Democrats are about as likely fear climate change as do Canadians and Germans; Republicans' views are more akin to Egyptians or Israelis.

Americans are near the bottom of the list when it comes to concern about climate change, but not at the bottom by any means. Chinese and Czech poll respondents both take climate change a little less seriously than Americans. Israelis appear significantly less worried. But the real outliers are Egyptians and Pakistanis, only 16 and 15 percent of whom, respectively, say they consider it a major threat. It's possible that this may reflect a sometimes-conspiratorial distrust of government in these countries, but that's just speculation. Sadly, both countries are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, which would increase the danger of flooding from the Nile and Indus Rivers.

Americans are most worried about North Korea's nuclear program, according to the survey; 59 percent call it a major threat.

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Max Fisher · September 27, 2013