Beliefs about global warming vary by country

Poll shows education, wealth affect how people judge the issues and science

climate change map

People from richer, well-educated nations tend to know more about climate change. But those in poorer, less-educated areas tend to be more worried about it.

Lee et al/Nature Climate Change 2015

Where you live can have a big effect on what you believe about global warming and other aspects of climate change. That’s the finding of a new study.

In 2007 and 2008, a Gallup World Poll surveyed people in 119 countries. That survey covered a range of issues. A group of scientists has now analyzed how people had responded to two of the questions: How much do you know about global warming, and how serious a threat does it pose to you and your family? And the responses, they report, were surprising.

Most scientists think the world’s climate is changing fast. Human activities, such as driving cars or burning coal to power electricity, have been driving much of that change, studies have shown. Such activities spew and other greenhouse gases into the air. These gases can slowly warm Earth’s atmosphere. And they can cause that warming to persist for a long time.

>Yet many people do not share the scientists’ view, the new poll shows. What’s more, how people responded depended on a host of factors. These included where people lived, how many years they’d gone to school, how much money they earned, their religion, their gender — even things such as how polluted the air was where they lived. It’s the first time such factors have been studied for their possible link to climate-change beliefs, the scientists say.

One surprise: Many people were not even aware of global warming. Most people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia had never heard of the concept. This included more than 65 percent of people in Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria and India. In contrast, people in the wealthier and more highly educated nations were quite familiar with global warming. More than 90 percent of those polled in the United States, Europe and Japan, for instance, reported they knew about climate change.

Another unexpected finding: Among people who were aware of global warming, those in the poorer nations tended to judge it as a far bigger threat. And in Latin America and Europe, the poll showed, people were more likely to see global warming as a bigger menace when they understood the role that humans have played in that warming. Elsewhere, in Africa and Asia, for instance, people were more likely to see climate change as a risk if it was tied to local temperatures or air pollution.

The findings appeared July 27 in Nature Climate Change.

“This is to our knowledge the first and only truly global study [on climate change],” according to Tien Ming Lee. He’s the study’s lead author. Now at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., he worked on the analysis when he was at the Earth Institute. It’s located at Columbia University in New York City. Lee says the new analysis indicates that there’s still much work to do in getting word out about global warming. Indeed, helping people in different parts of the globe understand it may require explaining the data and risks in very different ways. Those explanations might almost have to differ from one neighboring country to another.

This December, a United Nations (UN) conference in Paris will attempt to get the world’s leaders to adopt a new treaty to slow climate change — and global warming. The new paper’s findings point out how hard this will be, notes Debbie Hopkins. She works at the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The UN conference will attempt to get leaders from more than 100 countries to agree to common goals aimed at protecting the environment. Writing in the same issue of Nature Climate Change, Hopkins says Lee’s study highlights the need for tailoring messages about climate change to different cultures and countries. A message that inspires people in one country to take climate change seriously might not work in another. Tailoring may be needed, she says, “to increase support for action on climate change — action that is urgently required.”

Power Words

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carbon dioxide  A colorless, odorless gas produced by all animals when the oxygen they inhale reacts with the carbon-rich foods that they’ve eaten. Carbon dioxide also is released when organic matter (including fossil fuels like oil or gas) is burned. Carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen during photosynthesis, the process they use to make their own food.

climate   The weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

climate change  Long-term, significant change in the climate of Earth. It can happen naturally or in response to human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.

conservation  The act of preserving or protecting something. The focus of this work can range from art objects to endangered species and other aspects of the natural environment.

culture  (in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values, and the symbols that they accept and or use. These will be passed along from adults to children.

electricity   A flow of charge, usually from the movement of negatively charged particles, called electrons.

gender  The attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex. Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as being the norm. Behaviors that are incompatible with these expectations are described as non-conforming.

global warming  The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.

greenhouse gas   A gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing heat. Carbon dioxide is one example of a greenhouse gas.

sustainability  (n: sustainable) To use resources in a way that they will continue to be available in the future.

treaty    A formal agreement that two or more sovereign powers (usually countries or tribal nations) have adopted, giving its provisions the force of law.

United Nations    An organization that takes on global issues, from health and justice (including the human rights) to protecting the environment and promoting world peace. It was founded in 1945. Today, 193 separate nations are members.

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