November 29, 2015

People worldwide support a global emissions agreement

As world leaders gather in Paris this week to fashion a global climate change accord, their citizens are sending them two different but not necessarily contradictory messages.

People in both rich and poor nations broadly favor their government signing an international agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of coal, natural gas and petroleum. But the degree of concern about climate change varies markedly from country to country.

Climate Concern Versus Climate ActionA new Pew Research Center survey finds there is a global consensus that climate change is a significant challenge. Globally, a median of 78% of people surveyed across 40 nations say they support their country signing an international agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions. But a global median of just 54% consider climate change to be a very serious problem (a median of 85% say it is at least somewhat serious).

Nowhere is this differential between concern about the climate and support for action more striking than in China, the nation responsible for the greatest annual release of CO2 into the atmosphere. About seven-in-ten Chinese (71%) support an international treaty to curtail emissions, yet just 18% of the public expresses intense concern about climate conditions – a 53-percentage-point differential. These results suggest the Chinese government has general public support for its recent initiatives to deal with global warming even though the Chinese people are not intensely concerned about global warming.

The same pattern holds true for a number of other major carbon-emitting countries. This action-versus-concern gap is 38 percentage points in Japan and 32 points in Russia. In the U.S., just 45% think climate change is a very serious problem, but 69% back government action to curb emissions – a 24-point difference.

The differences between a relatively low perception of the climate challenge and public willingness to do something about it are even greater in other nations, of which some are big CO2 emitters and others are not. Israel (56 points) and Ukraine (48 points) are countries that are not among the top 20 CO2 emitters. But Poland (44 points) and South Korea (41 points) are.

Perhaps when it comes to climate change, people around the world are opting for the well-known principle: “Better safe than sorry.”

Topics: Energy and Environment, International Governments and Institutions

  1. Photo of Bruce Stokes

    is director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center.


  1. Godfree Roberts2 years ago

    Thanks for a fascinating interpretation of China’s huge perception/approval gap. It exemplifies everything that Pew stands for. Thanks for once again drawing our attention to something that Pew has been shouting and waving about for decades: the relationship of the ordinary Chinese people to their government. It dovetails Pew’s repeated Global Attitudes findings that 80%–90% of Chinese trust their government. WTF!!?? Is this China’s super weapon? Governance?

    Say it isn’t so, Joe!! Is there a governance gap?

    If people trust their government they’re easy as pie to govern. A neutral government shaping national consensus is the easiest kind of government to trust.

    Decades of Pew’s snapshots of China’s undeniable rise now make a short movie.

    Strung together, Pew’s snapshots of Americans’ declining trust in our institutions and future make a stunning counterpart.

    We used to trust our government once. If we don’t get a trustworthy government within then years we’ll be irrelevant on the world stage. The attitudes tell the story. It’s high-level democracy.

  2. James E. Therrault2 years ago

    Where does Pew get their info when considering that…

    1. Barely 3% of Americans are greatly concerned with climate change?

    2. The countries most responsible for environmental quality refuse to pay their share for any clean up?

    3. Considerable data refutes the notion of the “human caused” factor?

    I for one am gravely skeptical…

  3. Foster H. Shannon2 years ago

    The Climate Change argument relies too heavily on analogical evidence and too little on empirical evidence. Every hurricane, every rain storm, every tornado is caused by Climate Change! A dying polar bear is offered as evidence. The calving of glaciers is offered, as if this process has not been going on for centuries. There seems to be reluctance to acknowledge that for thousands of years Earth has experienced periods of warming and cooling.

  4. Al McClain2 years ago

    It is astounding to me that such a relatively small percentage of people in these countries believe climate change to be a very serious problem. I realized we have our collective head stuck in the sand here in the U.S., but didn’t know citizens of other major polluting countries were doing the same. It doesn’t speak well for the intelligence of the species, although the Flat Earth Society no doubt would be proud.

  5. Packard Day2 years ago

    Yes, they support it, but will they pay? Like being for world peace, universal healthcare, or advocating an end to global hunger, it is difficult to find someone (anyone) who is actually opposed to questions like these. This is because the survey question demands “no skin in the game” and the part of the respondent. Perhaps a better way to test personal interest in global emissons would be to ask people whether they would personally be willing to pay an extra “X” amount of money in sales taxes to pay for lower green house gases.

    1. Dave VanHoven2 years ago

      Packard, your commentary is “spot on”.

  6. chinmayhemani2 years ago

    Which segment of the society is surveyed here as India as per this chart seems to fare better than other countries with less differential between concern about climate change and country agreeing to global climate treaty..?