Climate change action could be thwarted by ambivalence

By Erica Mather 30/07/2015

A new multi-national study has analysed a number of contributing factors for their impact on the way climate change is interpreted across the globe. 

Public awareness and risk perception of climate change were found to be influenced by a combination of nation-specific aspects.  These findings highlight the need to develop better communication strategies that are tailored to individual nations.

The existence of human-driven climate change and the threat it poses to ecosystems and societies worldwide has been well established by scientists.  However, research on public opinion shows that there is great variation in the awareness and concern of climate change across the globe.  Even in places such as Australia, Europe and America where the awareness of climate change is high, most don’t perceive it as a ‘serious threat’.

Geographic patterns of climate change perceptions opinion poll in 2007–2008 worldwide on (a) the percentage of awareness and (b) risk perception. Credit:
Geographic patterns of climate change perceptions opinion poll in 2007–2008 worldwide on (a) the percentage of awareness and (b) risk perception. Credit:

For the first time, Tien Ming Lee and colleagues assessed the complex contributing factors for this ambivalence in a survey of 119 countries – representing more than 90 per cent of the world’s population.  The influence of socio-demographic characteristics, geography, perceived well-being, and beliefs on climate change awareness and risk perceptions were determined at national scales.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change has greatly extended previous research that is unable to be generalised across the globe, as it is country and culture specific to the developed countries it studied.

Currently we lack an understanding of the factors that play a role in how citizens across the globe make decisions about climate change.  The study by Lee et al. focused on peoples’ perception of risk with regard to the potential impacts on themselves, their families and their communities.

Each country was studied separately as national, cultural and geographic factors are pivotal in determining the individual-level factors that contribute to climate change awareness and risk perception.

Not surprisingly, Lee et al. established that countries in the developed world had the highest level of climate change awareness (over 90%).  In developing countries, most had never heard of climate change – 65% of respondents in Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria and India.

However, those in developing countries who were aware of climate change, perceived it as a much greater threat to themselves and their families than those in developed countries.  This supports the findings of Kahan and colleagues, revealing in Nature Climate Change that cultural world-views are more influential to the perception of climate change risk than science literacy.

Although education was identified as the single strongest predictor of awareness overall, the perception of risk is influenced by a variety of things – an appreciation for human involvement in climate change influences people most in Latin America and Europe.  The local temperature change has the biggest impact in many African and Asian countries.  Lee et al. found that the most influential factor in a significant portion of the countries studied was specific to the nation.

Wider implications

With the United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) set to take place in Paris later this year, this research by Lee et al. is particularly significant.

Debbie Hopkins from the Centre for Sustainability at the University of Otago comments in an editorial in Nature Climate Change on the strong association between the acceptance of climate change and the support for policy action.  She adds that countries with diverging ambitions are the main reason why global climate negotiations fail to reach robust international agreement.

“… Raising levels of climate change understanding and risk perception could result in increased acceptance of climate policy across nations and aid progress towards a post-Kyoto agreement,” writes Hopkins.

Lee et al. suggest that the awareness and perception of climate change is likely to increase globally as societies become more educated and as more people witness changes in their local weather patterns.  However, as Hopkins points out, the disparity in the degree of impact that climate change has on developing countries compared to developed countries, may mean that wealthy nations are sluggish to act.

Future goals

In order to improve citizen engagement with climate change, Lee et al. emphasise the need for national and regional programmes that are designed for the unique context of each country, particularly in the developing world.  This could tackle the issue that Hopkins illustrates – the detrimental effect on societies’ acceptance of climate change from the misinterpretation of, or a lack of agreement in scientific explanation.  This effect may be greater than not having any awareness of climate change at all.

Kahan et al. speculate that this issue stems from the tendency of individuals to agree with and credit information that aligns with the beliefs of their peers, as the consequence of not conforming to peer attitudes is greater than the effect that they alone can make on the outcome of climate change.  This ‘culturally congenial’ mode of reasoning poses great risks to group decision making.  Therefore, targeting nations could be a way to collectively alter the attitudes of individuals without threatening group values.

The researchers stress the importance of collaboration across disciplines in future, localised studies to gain wider perspectives of the social and cultural aspects of peoples’ perception of climate change.  This will be essential to understand how they will respond in terms of behaviour and climate policy support.