Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Global Unease With Major World Powers

Chapter 2. Global Threats: The World’s Shifting Agenda

Throughout the world, new patterns have emerged in the way that people perceive the threats posed by pollution, AIDS and infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation, religious and ethnic hatred, and income inequality. In particular, worries about pollution and the environment have increased dramatically since 2002. Of the five global threats tested in the survey, pollution and environmental problems are now ranked as the greatest world danger by publics in a diverse group of countries that includes Canada, Sweden, Spain, Peru, Ukraine, China and India.

The proportion of people who view environmental degradation as a major threat to the planet has increased significantly in 20 of 35 countries for which trends from 2002 are available. However, it remains a second-tier issue in the Middle East and in several developing countries.

Concerns about the growing gap between the rich and poor also are on the rise in many parts of the world. By contrast, three other problems that led the list of concerns in most countries five years ago – AIDS and other infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation, and religious and ethnic hatred – are mentioned less often as top global threats today.

To deal with these disparate threats, the publics of the world turn to a diverse list of nations and institutions. The United Nations is widely viewed as most responsible for addressing religious and ethnic hatred, among those who see this as a major global threat. By comparison, people who rate the growing gap between rich and poor as a leading problem tend to look to their own country for solutions, rather than outside nations or institutions. Many say the United States should take responsibility for dealing with nuclear proliferation, while opinions differ about whether the U.S., the U.N., or peoples’ own countries should take the lead on AIDS and other infectious diseases.

People who cite pollution and other environmental problems as top global dangers differ about which country or institution should take responsibility for dealing with this problem, although sizable numbers in many countries point to the U.S. There is greater agreement about which country has done most to hurt the world’s environment – majorities or pluralities in 34 out of 37 countries where this question was asked name the United States.

More Concern about Environmental Problems

In several countries, the proportion viewing environmental degradation as a leading global threat has risen sharply in the past five years. In Brazil, the percentage considering pollution and environmental problems to be a top danger rose from 20% in 2002 to 49% this year; concerns also have risen sharply in Argentina (25 percentage points), France (23 points), and Venezuela (22 points).

In the U.S., there has been a double-digit increase in the proportion citing the environmental problems as a major global threat – from 23% to 37%. However, pollution is a lower-rated concern in the U.S. than in any other advanced industrial country. In addition, the Chinese are far more likely than Americans to cite environmental problems as a top global danger (70% vs. 37%).

The growing gap between the rich and poor also is viewed as a major threat by growing numbers of people around the world. In 11 of the 35 countries where trend data are available, a significantly larger share of the public rates this as a top danger in the world today. There has been a dramatic increase in concern about the rich-poor gap in South Korea, in particular: 68% rate this as a leading global threat, up 25 points in the past five years. Concerns about the rich-poor gap also have risen sharply in Russia (from 33% to 48%) and in South Africa (from 35% to 50%).

In contrast, the proportions naming each of the three other dangers tested – AIDS and other infectious diseases, nuclear proliferation, and religious and ethnic hatred – have declined, at least slightly, in most of the countries surveyed in 2002 and 2007. The number of people considering the spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases to be one of the two most serious global threats declined significantly in 16 of 35 countries, including South Korea (down 18 percentage points), Brazil (16 points) and Italy (12 points). Concerns about AIDS and infectious diseases have risen significantly in only two countries: Bangladesh (up 17 points) and India (10 points).

Even in Africa, where AIDS and disease remains the dominant concern, the proportions naming it as a top global threat dropped significantly in Ghana (by 11 percentage points), Uganda (10 points) and Kenya (seven points). Despite the declines, AIDS still is viewed as a global threat by solid majorities in every African country except Mali, including each of the three countries (Ghana, Uganda and Kenya) that registered the largest declines in concern.

Outside of Africa, no single issue consistently dominates countries’ list of top threats. For example in Germany, 58% cite religious and ethnic hatred as the first or second-most serious danger facing the world while 50% name growing income inequality and 45% say pollution and environmental problems.

In some countries, consensus emerged on two or three global problems while other concerns barely registered. In South Korea, for example, 77% cite pollution as one of the two biggest global dangers and 68% see the growing gap between wealthy and poor as a top concern; both figures are the highest measured in all 47 countries surveyed. Meanwhile, just 14% of South Koreans point to religious and ethnic hatred and just 7% cite AIDS and disease – the lowest proportions across all countries surveyed. The Japanese share South Koreans’ concerns about the environment (70% rate it as a top global threat), but also focus on the spread of nuclear weapons. Roughly two-thirds of the Japanese (68%) view nuclear weapons proliferation as a top global danger, more than in any other country. The Japanese are among the least likely to cite growing income inequality (28%) and AIDS and infectious diseases (11%) as top global threats.

Who Should Deal with Problems?

Global publics differ on the country or institution that should take responsibility for dealing with the dangers tested in the survey. However, some rough patterns do emerge, though the contrasts between countries and regions often are as noteworthy as the similarities.

Countries most worried about nuclear proliferation are more likely to turn to the United States and, to a lesser degree, the United Nations, to deal with the issue. The Japanese worry the most about the spread of nuclear weapons, and nearly half of the Japanese who view this as a major threat (47%) say the U.S. should take responsibility for dealing with the problem, compared with 16% who say the U.N. This is characteristic of responses by concerned publics in many other nations, though the Lebanese and Jordanians who worry about nuclear proliferation say the U.N. – not the U.S. should take responsibility for dealing with this problem.

In South Africa, where AIDS and other infectious diseases remain the top concern, a clear majority (56%) say their own country should take responsibility for handling the issue, and this view is shared by many in Tanzania and Kenya as well. Pluralities in Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria say the U.N. should be most responsible for dealing with the threat of disease, and a plurality in Ivory Coast volunteers that the U.S. should have primary responsibility for dealing with the problem.

The United Nations is the choice to take responsibility for religious and ethnic hatred by many of the publics who see this problem as a leading world danger. Roughly half of the French (52%) and about a third of the British (34%) who rate this as a top global danger say the U.N. should take responsibility for dealing with it. Notably, about a third of concerned residents in the Palestinian territories (32%) look to the U.S. to take responsibility for dealing with religious and ethnic hatreds.

While the growing gap between the wealthy and poor is described by many as a major global concern, concerned publics most often look to their own country to take responsibility for dealing with this problem. This is the case in South Korea, Kenya and Indonesia, where concern about income inequality is most widespread.

Regional Differences

The Americas

In the United States, religious and ethnic hatred and the spread of nuclear weapons stand out as the leading global dangers. But the percentage of Americans who cite these as leading global dangers has declined significantly since 2002 as environmental concerns have increased. Currently 45% rate nuclear proliferation as a major threat to the world, down from 58% five years ago; 45% see religious and ethnic hatred as a top danger, down from 52% in 2002. Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans who say environmental problems pose a serious threat to the world has increased from 23% in 2002 to 37% in the current poll.

By comparison, environmental problems are viewed as top global dangers by many more people in every other country surveyed in the Americas, particularly Canada (54%), Argentina (53%) and Peru (55%). In Chile, concerns about the rich-poor gap overshadow other issues – 56% rate it as the biggest threat – while AIDS and infectious diseases are cited most frequently as global dangers in Venezuela (58%) and Mexico (54%).

Sub-Saharan Africa

AIDS and infectious diseases are named most frequently as global threats by publics in each of the 10 countries surveyed in this region. The growing gap between the rich and the poor generally is the second most frequently named threat.

While the number citing AIDS and other infectious diseases as top global dangers is somewhat diminished from 2002, these concerns remain widely prevalent throughout the region. As was true five years ago, overwhelming majorities see AIDS and infectious diseases as a top global threat in Tanzania (87%), South Africa (83%), Kenya (82%), Ethiopia (78%), Uganda (75%) and Ghana (73%). Somewhat fewer share this concern in Senegal (62%) and Mali (51%).

In seven of the 10 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed, the growing gap between rich and poor is rated second most frequently – behind AIDS and infectious diseases – as a world threat. Majorities in Kenya (61%) and Ethiopia (52%), and half of those in Senegal, rate the widening rich-poor gap as a leading danger.

Middle East

Two problems dominate concerns across this region: the threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons, and religious and ethnic hatred. In nearly every Middle Eastern country surveyed, these issues are either the first or second most frequently mentioned threat facing the world. The proportion who name nuclear proliferation as a top global danger has increased in Jordan (by 21 percentage points), Turkey (11 points), and Lebanon (eight points) in the past five years (trends for other Middle Eastern countries are not available.)

In Lebanon, nearly three-in-four (74%) rate religious and ethnic hatred as a top threat, while 57% say the same about nuclear weapons proliferation. These two issues also lead the list of concerns in Israel, where 66% cite the spread of nuclear weapons as the top world threat – more than any other country surveyed except Japan. Another 48% say religious and ethnic hatred is a top threat, the second most-frequently mentioned threat cited by Israelis among those tested in the survey.

In the neighboring Palestinian territories, the order of these two issues is reversed: Nearly two-thirds (64%) rate religious and ethnic hatred as a top threat, while 40% cite nuclear proliferation.

Western Europe

Concern about the environment joins religious and ethnic hatred as the top threats identified by publics in the six Western European countries included in the study. Concern about religious and ethnic hatred is highest in Great Britain (67% top global threat), Germany (58%) and France (55%). In each of these countries, more people cite religious and ethnic hatred than the environment as a top global danger, though concern about the environment has risen sharply in all three countries.

But in Italy, Spain and Sweden, a different pattern emerges. Environmental worries eclipse religious and ethnic animosities to lead the rankings of biggest threats to world stability. This is particularly the case in Sweden, where 66% cite the environment as the greatest global concern. Within the region, concerns about religious and ethnic violence rank the lowest in Spain at 34%. Concern about AIDS and infectious disease has dropped in all four countries where trends are available (Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy) and ranks as the lowest concern in five of the six Western European nations.


Environmental worries are especially acute in Japan, China and South Korea, where 70% or more in each country name these concerns as a major danger. About half of Indians (49%) also cite environmental degradation as a top global threat, more than any other problem.

In contrast, less than a third of the publics in Indonesia, Bangladesh or Pakistan view environmental problems as leading global threats. Instead, income inequality ranks as the most serious world threat in Pakistan (51%) and Indonesia (57%), while concern about AIDS and infectious disease has become the top concern in Bangladesh at 50%. Concern about disease is also up in India, and is the top concern of Malaysians, where 47% see it as a major global danger.

Global Warming

Substantial majorities 25 of 37 countries say global warming is a “very serious” problem (this question was not asked in Sub-Saharan Africa.) And there is also broad agreement about who is most responsible: Pluralities nearly everywhere name the United States as the country that is doing the most damage to the world’s environment.

Concern about climate change is especially acute in the Americas and Western Europe, while in Asia and the Middle East the views are mixed. In North America and Latin America, majorities in every country – except the U.S. – say global warming is a very serious problem, including 88% in Brazil, 78% in Venezuela, 75% in Chile, and 69% in Argentina.

In the United States, slightly less than half (47%) rate warming as a very serious concern, while another 28% say it is somewhat serious. In neighboring Canada and Mexico, solid majorities – 58% and 57% respectively – consider the issue very serious.

Sizable majorities in all but one Western European country also view global warming as a very serious problem, ranging from 57% in Italy to 70% in Spain. Public opinion in Great Britain mirrors the U.S. view: Less than half (45%) say it is very serious while another 37% rate it as a somewhat serious concern. Attitudes in Eastern Europe are, for the most part, similar to those in Western Europe. Clear majorities in Bulgaria (66%), Slovakia (65%), the Czech Republic (61%) and the Ukraine (59%) see global warming as a very serious problem. Only in Russia and Poland do minorities (40% each) see rising global temperatures as a big problem.

Across Asia, views of global warming also fall at the extremes. More than eight-in-ten in Bangladesh (85%) rate global warming as a very serious problem, the largest proportion of any country surveyed, though roughly three-quarters express this view in Japan (78%) and South Korea (75%). But the issue is seen as far less pressing in China, where 42% rate climate change as a very serious problem, about the same proportion as in Malaysia (46%), Indonesia (43%) and Pakistan (41%).

As is the case elsewhere, majorities in each of the Middle Eastern countries surveyed say that global warming is at least somewhat of a problem. But this region offers the greatest contrasts in opinions. Only about a third of those interviewed in Egypt and Jordan see climate change as very serious, the lowest proportions in any of the 37 countries in which views were gauged. At the same time, substantial majorities in Morocco (69%), Kuwait (69%) and Turkey (70%) see rising atmospheric temperatures to be a very serious problem, as do 59% of Palestinians.

U.S. Blamed the Most for Pollution Problems

Most people in the surveyed countries agree the environment is in trouble and most blame the United States and, to a much more limited degree, China.

In 34 of the 37 countries where data is available, the United States is named by a majority or a clear plurality as the country that is “hurting the world’s environment the most.” (Respondents were asked to name a country from a list that included India, Germany, China, Brazil, Japan, United States and Russia.) In seven countries, majorities identify the United States as the world’s top polluter, including 61% in both Bangladesh and Turkey. Even a third of Americans rate their own country as the world’s biggest polluter, more than point to any other single country.

Respondents in only three countries placed more blame on a country other than the U.S. In South Korea, 56% place the most responsibility for environmental problems on China, while in India, 29% say their own country is hurting the world’s environment the most. In both cases, the United States is second on the list of countries most to blame.

Aside from the United States, China stands out as a contributor to global environmental problems. In addition to the majority of South Koreans, China is mentioned by about a third of Japanese (34%), German (33%), British (31%) and Canadian (31%) respondents as the country doing most harm to the global environment. Russia stands out as the biggest contributor to environmental problems only within its own neighborhood. It is cited by 19% of Poles, 16% of Swedes and 16% of Russians themselves. In all three cases, this is far fewer than point the finger at the United States.

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