Over 40% of the world says “no.”
by Anthony Leiserowitz
Climate change is an enormous scientific, political, and economic challenge. Scientifically, what are the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change? What does the study of past climates tell us about our potential future? What are the key tipping points of abrupt climate change within the dynamic complexity of the global climate system? What new energy sources, smart grids, transportation systems, and urban designs are required to cut the Gordian knot of climate change and fossil fuels?
Politically, what are the most effective policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resiliency to now-inevitable impacts? How can we forge a global deal between the developed and developing worlds? How do we motivate political leaders to solve a problem that stretches well beyond the short time horizon of the next election cycle?
And economically, what are the most cost efficient ways to reduce global emissions? How do we discount the future? What is the best way to incentivize technological innovation? How do we de-carbonize the global economy, while improving standards of living–particularly in the developing world? All of these–science, politics, and economies–are critical to the successful resolution of the climate crisis.
Climate change is also, however, an enormous education challenge. At its root, global warming is the product of the decisions and behavior of 6.5 billion human beings. Of course, not all have equal impacts on the global climate – the 15-fold difference between the carbon emissions of the average American and the average Indian is a stark reminder of the vast differences in wealth and well-being across the planet. Likewise, the decisions of individual political and business leaders can ripple across entire countries and generations. Yet the ultimate source of power in a democracy is located in its citizens–the public–through the leaders they elect (or throw out of office), the issues they demand their leaders address, or the policies they support or oppose (or at least tolerate). Successfully addressing climate change will require an unprecedented degree of committed public support for difficult climate policies over long periods of time amidst the rise and fall of other competing priorities.
Economics too is ultimately rooted in the individual and collective decisions of the public (now styled “consumers”). Will consumers reward those companies that provide products and services with smaller carbon footprints and punish those that do not? Are they willing to pay more (or the “real”) price for goods and services with climate change externalities into the price of everything from milk to exotic travel? Will companies and mass consumer markets adequately respond to the price signals of carbon taxes or cap and trade systems?
Even the projections of climate science are rooted in mass human behavior. One of the greatest sources of uncertainty in climate model projections is human behavior–the decisions that we as individuals and collectively as a global community make today and over the next decade will largely determine which climate scenario comes to pass.
So how does the world public currently understand and perceive the threat of climate change? Do they understand the urgency of action? Will they support aggressive policies and treaties? Are they willing to change their own climate change-related behaviors?
Unfortunately, we are only beginning to develop the research tools and methods to investigate these simple, but vitally important questions. What little we do know, however, is deeply troubling. I advise the Gallup World Poll–a new and unprecedented annual global survey of the health, well-being, attitudes, and behaviors of citizens using nationally representative samples in over 150 countries, representing 95 percent of the world’s population–which now includes a set of questions about climate change. The responses to just one question demonstrate the enormity of the education challenge we confront, yet have done relatively little to address. The question is simple: “How much do you know about global warming or climate change?” Possible answers are “I know a great deal about it,” “I know something about it,” or “I have never heard of it.”
Fortunately, the vast majority of the public in developed countries has heard of climate change, reaching a high of 99 percent in Japan and 96 percent in the United States. Yet other studies (my own included) demonstrate that great confusion about climate change causes, consequences, solutions, and urgency continues even in these wealthy countries, with small, but vocal minorities (especially in the United States) still denying the reality or seriousness of the threat.
More problematic, however are the many developing countries where even basic awareness of climate change is completely lacking. For example, 75 percent of Egyptians, 71 percent of Bangladeshis, 65 percent of South Africans, 65 percent of Indians, and 63 percent of Indonesians have never even heard of climate change. By my rough estimate, over 1.9 billion people on Earth are unaware of this threat.
This lack of even basic awareness has enormous implications for science, politics, and economies. Many of these countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to the myriad impacts of climate change. Vulnerability is a function not just of physical hazards (e.g., sea-level rise, drought, disease, etc.), but of individual and social adaptive capacity and resilience. Human beings can often mitigate, adapt, or prepare for hazards–if they know they are coming. Without even basic awareness of the threat, however, they are even more vulnerable.
Moreover, many of these countries are now major emitters (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, South Africa) and therefore critical players in the international negotiations to reduce global emissions. Yet large proportions of their populations have never heard of climate change. It is unlikely that these societies will support substantive and potentially painful efforts by their own governments to slow or reduce national emissions as part of a new global deal, if they don’t understand why they are necessary. Finally, many of these countries now have a rapidly growing consumer class–hundreds of millions of newly affluent individuals and families who justifiably desire the same material success found in the developed world. Thus we see a surging global demand for energy, imported goods, automobiles, electronics, etc.–a demand that in turn generates spiraling carbon emissions. Will these new consumers choose products and services that leapfrog over the highly carbon-intensive lifestyles of the developed world? The choices and decisions of these new consumers will greatly determine our collective fate, yet many are unaware of climate change.
The climate crisis has been called a problem of “political will,” but this phrase only hints at the changes required–including changes in household energy use, transportation, diets, consumer preferences, land use, and last, but certainly not least, demand for political action. Billions of dollars have been spent and enormous efforts made to understand the dynamics of the climate system, to develop and negotiate regulatory and economic policies, and to invent new non-polluting technologies–and much work remains to be done. But we now also need a complementary global-scale effort to understand, educate, and encourage mass behavioral change–including defined targets and timetables, new institutions, and adequately-scaled investments. Knowledge is power–including the power to make different choices. We must empower the people around the world with a clear understanding of both the threat and the opportunities this crisis presents.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D. is Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and a Research Scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. He is a widely recognized expert on American and international public opinion on global warming, including public perception of climate change risks, support and opposition for climate policies, and willingness to make individual behavioral change. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, political, and geographic factors that drive public environmental perception and behavior.