As much as 40 percent of the world's adult population is unaware of climate change, according to a recently released study – and the vast majority of them live in developing countries.
The Yale-led study, published July 27 in the journal Nature Climate Change, uses polling data to explain why the world is so divided in terms of climate change awareness and in the perception of global warming's risks.
While the authors were limited to data from 2008 due to a lack of alternative cross-country polls, the study paints a picture of a remarkable level of ignorance about climate change – and offers some explanation for why.
In the first part of their study, the researchers looked at awareness — without taking into account whether respondents considered climate change as a serious risk.
Surprisingly, the leading factors varied between countries. "In the United States, the key predictors of awareness are civic engagement, communication access and education," a news release noted. "Meanwhile in China, climate change awareness is most closely associated with education, proximity to urban areas and household income."
Chinese citizens were surprisingly aware of climate change, compared to many in India and African nations. "In many developing countries, relatively few are aware of the issue, although many do report having observed changes in local weather patterns," the researchers concluded.
The researchers also discovered that among those who were aware of climate change, those in the developing countries perceived climate change as a much greater threat than people in developed countries.
In most of Europe and the U.S., however, only about 50 percent of those aware of climate change in 2008 considered it a serious threat, despite easy access to media coverage and education.
What's particularly interesting is that education may actually have the opposite effect in some industrialized countries (especially the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia), compared to developing nations. "Greater educational attainment enables partisans to develop stronger arguments to support their ideological responses to the issue," the researchers argued in their paper.
Latin America stands out, because nearly all of its inhabitants are aware of climate change and consider it a serious threat. "Why does Latin America universally perceive climate change as a greater threat than any other region in the world? We don’t yet know the answer, but I strongly suspect that it has something to do with culture. It’s not vulnerability or direct experience, as there are plenty of other countries at least if not more vulnerable who are also experiencing impacts than Latin America," Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, explained in an email.
Moreover, it seems surprising that China is so much more aware of climate change than India -- but perceives it as a far smaller risk than India. According to Leiserowitz, this aspect did not surprise the researchers: "That makes sense in part because India has hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers, who are fundamentally dependent on weather patterns for basic survival - much more of their population than China, where the economy has been booming bigger and longer."
There is not one single factor that explains whether people will perceive global warming as seriously dangerous or not, assuming that they are aware of it. However, despite cross-country differences, the researchers were able to identify several recognizable trends,
For example, those in Latin America and Europe tended to perceive climate change as a greater threat when they understand that humans were the major cause. Meanwhile, in many African and Asian countries, risk perception was strongly associated with changes in local temperatures and other tangible effects.
Again, the U.S. appears to be a special case: "In the United States, members of the public are more likely to perceive climate change as a personal threat when they understand it is human-caused, when they perceive that local temperatures have changed, and when they support government efforts to preserve the environment," the study noted. "In China, however, the members of the public perceive climate change as a greater threat when they understand it is human-caused and when they are dissatisfied with local air quality."
“This study strongly suggests that we need to develop tailored climate change communication strategies for individual countries, and even for areas within the same country,” lead author Tien Ming Lee was quoted as saying by Yale News. Ultimately, there's no "one size fits all" in raising climate change awareness.
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