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Climate Change? What's That?

As many as 65 percent of people in some countries haven't even heard of climate change, and perceptions of risk often depend on local temperatures as much as beliefs about humans' role in the changing environment, a new study finds.
A melting glacier. (Photo: Bernhard Staehli/Shutterstock)

A melting glacier. (Photo: Bernhard Staehli/Shutterstock)

By now, researchers know a fair bit about Americans' views on global climate change—but enough with Americans already. What about the rest of the world? As it turns out, the outlook's not so good: According to a new study, many people haven't even heard of climate change, and making progress will take efforts tailored to each country's unique circumstances.

Researchers have been studying opinions about climate change for several decades now, and they've learned a lot, but only in a handful of countries. "Current research on public perceptions of climate change ... has been dominated by studies in Australia, the United States, and Europe," writes a team led by Tien Ming Lee, now a senior research assistant at Princeton University's Science, Technology, and Environment Program. "[A]t present we lack even a rudimentary understanding of the factors shaping citizens' climate change awareness and risk perception globally," the team writes in Nature Climate Change.

Fortunately, the researchers had access to relatively new data, thanks to the 2007–2008 Gallup World Poll, which represented 119 countries—more than 90 percent of the world's people. The results bolster some already well-known findings—for example, nearly everyone in North America, Europe, and Japan has at least heard of climate change, but relatively slim majorities in the U.S. and parts of Europe consider the changing environment a serious threat.

"Perception of local temperature change is the strongest predictor of risk perceptions in many Asian and African countries."

Around the world, a different picture emerges. Throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, majorities said they hadn't heard of climate change; in Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and India, that number topped 65 percent. On the other hand, people in developing countries who did know about climate change perceived it as a much greater threat than those in developed countries.

Perhaps people in developing countries recognize a greater threat in part because climate change actually isgreater threat to them, though two factors stood out in Lee and his colleagues' analysis. First, if people believe that humans are to blame for climate change, they're more likely to think there are serious threats associated with global warming.

More surprisingly, people also seemed to infer climate change risks from local weather or pollution patterns. "[P]erception of local temperature change is the strongest predictor of risk perceptions in many Asian (for example, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam) and African countries (for example, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Rwanda)," the researchers explain.

Globally, education was the most important factor in determining whether people were aware of climate change in the first place, which suggests investing in education might help increase awareness of climate change and the risks associated with it, the team argues.

Still, the precise mix of factors that influenced opinions about global warming changed from country to country, indicating that efforts "to increase citizen engagement with climate change must be tailored to the unique context of each country, especially in the developing world," the team concludes.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.