A typhoon breaks near the tsunami-crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. Japan is one of the few rich states whose population is as concerned about climate change as poorer countries. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/REUTERS
People living in the world’s wealthiest nations generally understand what climate change is but in many countries just half perceive it to be a threat, new research has found.
The analysis of perceptions in 119 countries found living standards and relative wealth are “poor predictors” of whether someone considers climate change to be a severe risk.
While more than 75% of people in Australia, the US, UK and most of the rest of Europe were aware of climate change, far fewer considered it to be detrimental to themselves or their families.
In Australia – recently cited as being a world leader in climate science denialism – as well as the US, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, climate change was perceived to be a threat by just over half of those polled.
In Russia, despite widespread understanding of climate change, less than 50% of people thought it was a risk to them.
The risks of climate change are more widely believed by people in France and Spain, but the greatest concern about its impacts are held elsewhere.
In every South American country, concern over climate change is above the 90% mark, with this level of worry shared by Mexico, India, Tanzania and Morocco. Japan is one of the few highly advanced economies in the world to have a population as concerned about the risks of climate change.
The paper, published in Nature Climate Change, found different factors drove awareness and risk perceptions of climate change. Education levels and understanding the human influence upon the climate was the greatest factor in Europe, while perception of changing temperatures is the key influence in many African and Asian countries.
Authors of the paper, who come from a selection of US universities, say the results show “the need to develop tailored climate communication strategies for individual nations. The results suggest that improving basic education, climate literacy, and public understanding of the local dimensions of climate change are vital to public engagement and support for climate action.”
The paper analysed the results of Gallup polls taken in 119 countries, where respondents were asked how much they know about climate change and whether they consider it a threat to them.
Dr Debbie Hopkins, an expert at the social understandings of climate change at the University of Otago, said many people still see climate change as a remote issue.
“People can be aware of it but they see it as a distant risk and don’t engage with it much,” she said. “This disjunction can negate the feeling that we need to act on climate change.
“In many developed countries we have confidence in our adaptive capacity. We think we can adapt and cope, and in many ways we can do so more than developing economies.
“We also talk about global averages and that’s a difficult term for many people because two degrees doesn’t seem like a lot. That risk seems diminished whereas if you’re living somewhere with extreme variability and extreme weather events, two degrees can seem like a lot.”
Hopkins said accurate media reporting of climate change and more engaged conversations with people on the issue at a local level would help illustrate the threat posed by changes such as rising sea levels and increased heat waves.
Climate change is already having its biggest impact upon the world’s most vulnerable, according to the UN, which voiced concern last year that rising temperatures will fuel conflict, war and migration.
The number of natural disasters between 2000 and 2009 was around three times higher than in the 1980s, the UN said.