The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

40 percent of adults on Earth have never heard of climate change

In this May 29, 2015 photo, a man walks past a coal-powered steel plant in Tianjin, China. A new study indicates that views on air and water quality in China are also a strong indicator of people’s attitudes toward climate change. The study surveyed 119 countries around the world to identify the factors that most affect public climate change awareness and risk perception. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

A major concern for climate activists is figuring out what drives the public’s beliefs about climate change. This information can help scientists better engage with the public and help activists understand what factors are likely to make people take climate change seriously as a threat.

Until now, most research into public attitudes on climate change have focused on Western nations, like the United States, Europe and Australia, leaving scientists with little knowledge of how much awareness there is about climate change in other parts of the world and how people feel about it. But a new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, provides a more inclusive look at the issue, giving scientists greater insight into what factors are most likely to make people care about climate change — if they know it’s happening at all.

The study focused on two major questions: what factors most influence whether a person is aware of climate change and, for those that know it’s happening, what factors influence how big of a risk that person thinks it poses. The researchers found that, worldwide, education is the biggest predictor of climate change awareness. Major factors that affected a person’s risk perception included understanding that climate change is caused by humans — this was especially true in the Americas and Europe — and noticing local changes in temperature, a particularly high indicator in many countries in Africa and Asia.

The study draws on the Gallup World Poll conducted in 2007 and 2008, which surveyed people from 119 countries around the world. First, the survey classified participants as either aware or unaware of climate change. Then, out of those who were aware, the survey further classified them as believing the risk was serious or not serious. The survey also noted other factors about the participants, such as their beliefs about the cause of climate change, their physical and financial well-being, their access to communication and their beliefs about other environmental issues. The idea was to get a better understanding of the kinds of personal and demographic characteristics that might affect how people view climate change.

While there were some broad trends across the board — the importance of education on climate change awareness, for example — the study points out that people in different countries are likely to be influenced by different factors. The paper includes a comparison of the United States and China, for example, and points out that in this country, the top three predictors of a person’s climate change awareness are his or her civic engagement, access to communication and education, while in China the top three indicators are a person’s education, geographic location (people in urban areas are more likely to be aware of the issue) and income level.

When it comes to perception of how much of a risk climate change poses, people in both countries are strongly influenced by whether they believe climate change is caused by humans or not. But they differ in other ways. Americans are more likely to perceive climate change as a serious risk if they also feel that local temperatures are getting warmer rather than staying the same. And their risk perception also tends to be greater if they are not satisfied with the way their government is dealing with other environmental issues.

Previous studies have also shown that attitudes in the U.S. tend to be highly influenced by partisanship — that is, by the political party a person identifies with. But senior author Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, cautions that political systems differ in vast ways around the world, and partisanship may not be a good indicator of risk perception in all places. In China, for instance, the study found that people were likely to perceive climate change as a greater risk if they also felt that the quality of their air and water was poor — a result that highlights the importance of local issues on many people’s worldviews.

These differences suggest, most importantly, that countries will require unique approaches when it comes to educating people on climate change. While educational campaigns will likely be the most impactful interventions across the board, more country-specific research could be useful “to better understand the wide-ranging cultural components that contribute to both how climate change is perceived, and what behavioural and policy responses are supported,” writes Debbie Hopkins, a researcher at the University of Otago’s Centre for Sustainability in New Zealand, in a commentary about the paper, also published Monday in Nature Climate Change.

The results also yield some insights into just how widespread the need for education is. The biggest surprise, according to Leiserowitz, was “when we realized approximately four out of 10 adults on Earth had never heard of climate change,” he says. “That rises to as high as two thirds in lots of countries including Egypt, India and Bangladesh, which has kind of become the poster child for climate change vulnerability.”

The results showed that developed nations had a much higher awareness of climate change than the developing world, likely thanks to higher access to education and communication. But on the other hand, the people who were aware of climate change in developing nations perceived its risk to be higher than those in developed nations.

Leiserowitz adds that many people in developing nations who had never been educated about climate change said they had nonetheless already noticed local changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. This is not necessarily surprising — time and again, scientists have warned that developing nations are likely to be hit hardest by the effects of climate change, and many climate-related changes in temperature and weather patterns are already most apparent in these places.

It’s a disproportional and, in many activists’ opinion, unjust aspect of climate change: The nations that have contributed the least amount of carbon emissions to Earth’s atmosphere are suffering the worst effects. And the new study’s results highlight another aspect of this climate injustice — that is, people in the nations likely to be most affected by climate change are the least educated on the issue and therefore the least prepared for its effects. “Not knowing you’re at risk makes you more vulnerable to risk,” Leiserowitz says.

Targeting areas that have low climate awareness or a low risk perception can help motivate citizens to push their leaders for better climate action, such as more investment in clean energy and more aggressive emissions reduction goals. It can also help people in vulnerable areas start to prepare for the consequences they’re going to experience, such as as temperature and weather changes, floods, droughts and their related impacts on food and water availability. And this study suggests that taking local values into account when designing education campaigns is will probably increase their effectiveness.

“The world is diverse, and a message and messengers and an approach that works well in the United States is not necessarily going to work well in a sub-Saharan African country,” Leiserowitz says. “You have to take local circumstances, language, values and culture into account.”