Two pieces in the New York Times have provided some useful perspective on the state of the global debate about climate change. The first of these compared responses cross-nationally to the question of whether global climate change is a major threat, a minor threat, or not a threat. The survey from the Pew Research Center found that 40% of US respondents framed climate change as a major threat, which is lower than that of other developed countries. The second of these posts split the US data by partisan affiliation, finding that only 1 in 4 Republicans viewed climate change as a major threat, compared with almost two out of every three Democrats.

While it is important to make snapshot comparisons, it’s also important to think about changes in how climate change is framed over time. Fortunately, the Pew Research Center asked the following question from 2007 to 2010: In your view, is global climate change a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious, or not a problem? Looking at this data suggests that the challenge posed by climate change is not merely the US’ low level of engagement, it is also that support for action has fallen across the developed world.

To underscore this, I calculated the change in the percentage of respondents saying that climate change is a very serious problem. These totals appear in the figure below. Please click on the image to scroll down to the bottom:

Those countries at the top of this figure, starting with France, Japan, and Spain, are those in which the percentage of respondents saying that climate change is a very serious problem has fallen since 2007. In the countries at the bottom of this figure, the percentage of respondents saying that climate change is a very serious problem has increased since 2007.

It is worth noting that the US experience here is not unusual. While the percentage of respondents saying that climate change is a very serious problem has fallen ten points since 2007, the US is not an outlier compared to other countries.

It should also be noted that the drop-off in recognizing climate change as a very serious problem is largely a developed world issue. Each of the countries with a yellow bar is classified by the World Bank as high income. Starting the survey in 2007, then, has the effect of comparing the pre-crisis world with the world of today. The mean change in the percentage of respondents recognizing climate change as a very serious problem differs between developed and developing countries. Among high income countries, the average change was a negative 9.7 points. Among all other income categories, the average change over time was a positive 6.4 points. The only high income country in which there has been more recognition of climate change as a very serious problem is Russia. In all the rest, there has been either no change over time (Israel) or less recognition of the problem.

Thus, there has been growing recognition of climate change as a problem, but this is largely confined to the developing world. This pattern is not difficult to understand. As survey respondents in developed countries worry about headlines about unemployment, they might correspondingly see climate change as less of a pressing problem. It is these countries, of course, in which the crisis originated. Support for fighting climate change, it seems, has been another casualty of the global economic crisis.

 

–Martin S. Edwards

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