Most in the developed world think the US is doing a bad job on climate, Pew poll finds

Local people are rescued by a boat as flooding due to heavy rain inundated Takeo City in western Japan on August 15, 2021.
CNN  — 

Despite efforts from President Joe Biden to turn the United States into a global climate leader, most people in the advanced world don’t think the US is doing a good job on the issue, and China is doing even worse, a new poll by the Pew Research Center published Tuesday shows.

The poll, of more than 18,000 people in 17 developed economies, offers a detailed snapshot into concerns around the climate crisis. It comes as the US Congress is debating a massive spending bill with provisions to slash fossil-fuel emissions, and less than two months before the United Nations-brokered climate talks begin in Glasgow.

Respondents expressed serious doubts that international climate efforts would effectively address the magnitude of the climate crisis – 52% of respondents lacked confidence a multilateral response would be successful, while 46% were optimistic that nations could respond by cooperating.

But the poll also suggested a growing awareness of the impacts of climate change, with 72% of respondents concerned that the climate crisis would personally harm them at some point during their lifetimes. In addition, 80% said they were willing to make personal sacrifices, or change their behavior, to address the crisis.

Jacob Poushter, Pew’s associate director of research and one of the authors of the report, said while concerns around climate had grown since the center’s last survey in 2015, it was still a polarizing issue in some parts of the advanced world.

“We do have a trend, where there’s a lot more people who are very concerned about the personal harm of climate change since 2015,” Poushter told CNN. “This is especially true in Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia and South Korea.”

“But there’s pretty large ideological divides on a lot of these questions,” he added. “There’s more polarization on this issue in the US, and to some extent Australia, than many of the other countries that we surveyed.”

The US part of the poll was carried out in February, while respondents in the 16 other places took part between mid-March to nearly the end of May 2021. People were also surveyed in Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

That was before extreme weather events over the summer hit much of the Northern Hemisphere in heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes and flash flooding. Though many respondents live in parts of the world where such events are becoming increasingly common.

Who cares about climate?

In terms of the personal impact of the climate crisis, Germany, the UK, Australia and South Korea showed the biggest increases in the number of respondents saying they were “very concerned” about the crisis, compared with 2015 polling.

South Koreans were most concerned overall, when looking at respondents who were either “somewhat” or “very” concerned (88%), followed by Greece (87%), Spain (81%), Italy (80%), France (77%) and Germany (75%).

In Sweden, only 44% said they were “somewhat” or “very concerned,” followed by the Netherlands (59%), the United States (60%) and Australia (64%).

In the US, public views about the climate crisis did not change significantly when compared with the 2015 poll.

In contrast, Japan was the only place that saw a significant drop, 8 percentage points less, in the number of respondents “very concerned” about climate change. The decline comes as the country recorded its earliest cherry blossom season and faced deadly floods and heat waves in recent years, which scientists say are due to warming temperatures.

Old vs. young; women vs. men

Young adults were generally more concerned than their older counterparts about how warming temperatures would impact them personally, according to the poll. Sweden, home to the prominent youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, came out with the widest generational gap, with 65% of 18- to 29-year-olds at least “somewhat concerned” about the climate crisis affecting them, 40 percentage points higher than adults 65 and older.

The US, Canada, France, New Zealand, and Australia also saw a substantial age gap in public view about the rapidly warming planet. But over-65s in Greece and South Korea were more concerned than the younger age group.

“It’s not new to us that younger people around the world are more concerned about climate change,” said Poushter.

“It’s the same when we asked the question of whether global climate change is a threat – and so that’s really a consistent binding that we had.”

Women were also more concerned about the personal impacts of climate change than men in the surveyed publics. In Germany, for instance, 82% of women compared to 69% of men expressed concern.

Public views on climate change also fell along the political spectrum. Those on the left were more inclined to take personal steps to mitigate the crisis. The results ring particularly true in the US, where 94% of people who identify with the left are more likely to alter the way they live and work to save the planet.

Eri Yamasumi, a specialist for climate strategies and policy at the UN Development Program, said the poll’s findings chime with those of a similar but larger survey she worked on with the University of Oxford released early this year.

“The Pew survey reaffirms the fact that people see a high personal threat from climate change – not only in the small island developing states, least developed countries and fragile contexts but also in many places in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific,” Yamasumi, who was not involved with the Pew report, told CNN.

“Addressing the climate crisis requires big changes and it’s important to understand how the public sees these changes,” she added.

Individual vs. collective action

The report also revealed mixed views on having a larger, collective response to the crisis. Climate researchers have said that no amount of individual action can address the magnitude of the problem, instead governments should commit to bold, global policies that hold industries accountable for its role in perpetuating the crisis.

Many respondents were critical of how the US, which relies heavily on fossil fuels, has been handling the climate crisis.

A median of 33% of respondents in the poll said the US was doing a “somewhat good” job, while only 3% said it was doing a “very good” job. Among US respondents, there is slightly more confidence, with 39% polled said the country is doing a “somewhat good” job, and 8% said it was doing “very good” job.

Much like the US, China also received critical polling numbers, with 78% saying it was doing a “very bad” job dealing with global climate change. Over a month after the survey, deadly flooding from heavy rainfall killed hundreds of people in the Chinese province of Henan.

“Fewer are confident that the international community can deal with climate change, especially when it comes to views of the United States and China,” Poushter told CNN.

“There’s a lot of doubts that those two countries, which are the two largest emitters in the world, are actually doing a good job of dealing with the issue.”

Unlike the US and China – which are the world’s two largest economies and greenhouse gas emitters – the European Union and the United Nations generally received more positive opinions over their action on climate.

The results come as tensions between US and China escalate ahead of COP26, when global leaders gather to tackle a warming world and make stringent commitments to reach net-zero carbon emissions. On Friday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged the two countries to avoid any problems that would get in the way of international climate talks.

And since the polling happened before many climate change-fueled disasters this summer, Poushter said that public opinion may have shifted further in the time since the poll. He noted too that the Covid-19 pandemic had limited the scope of the survey.

“Unfortunately, this is only among sort of advanced economies where we know that telephone surveying works because of the pandemic,” Poushter said.

“In a typical year, we would be going to those other countries and getting a broader view of how climate change and other issues are affecting people in the more developing and emerging economies of the world.”

As people around the world become more exposed to the consequences of climate change, experts say public awareness about the impacts is necessary. The state-of-the-science report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the planet is warming faster than scientists had previously thought.

Deep and sustained cuts to emissions are needed over this decade to give the Earth a chance of containing average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, to avoid worsening climate change impacts and passing critical thresholds for many ecosystems.

“People are seeing the climate crisis in their own backyards,” Yamasumi said. “Public awareness of the crisis is critical – both for education and to encourage all countries to take the bold action needed to keep people and planet safe for generations to come.”