This analysis focuses on cross-national views of how people perceive major international threats, such as climate change, the spread of infectious diseases and terrorism, in 14 advanced economies. Pew Research Center has published previous looks at global threat perceptions with results from cross national surveys in 2018, 2017, 2016 (Europe) and 2013. Across these surveys, climate change and terrorism – in the form of ISIS or Islamic extremist groups in general – have been perceived as top threats in most years, but global economic conditions and cyberattacks have also been ranked highly as major threats.
For this report, we use data from nationally representative surveys of 14,276 adults from June 10 to Aug. 3, 2020, in 14 economically advanced countries. All surveys were conducted over the phone with adults in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak, face-to-face interviewing is not currently possible in many parts of the world, so surveys were only conducted in countries with robust telephone polling operations.
In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated news headlines around the world, it is perhaps unsurprising to discover that majorities in 14 countries surveyed this past summer see the spread of infectious disease as a major threat to their countries.
But across the European countries included in the study, climate change remains the top-most perceived threat, even as people there also express grave concern about the risks posed by infectious disease.
Overall, medians of roughly seven-in-ten across the 14 economically advanced countries surveyed say that global climate change and the spread of infectious diseases are both major threats. Medians of six-in-ten or more cite security concerns – such as terrorism, cyberattacks from other countries and the spread of nuclear weapons – as major threats.
In terms of relative rankings, climate change outpaces or ties infectious disease as the most frequently mentioned “major threat” in eight of 14 countries polled, including seven of the nine European countries surveyed. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, five countries, including the United States, name the spread of disease as the foremost threat. People in two countries, Australia and Denmark, put cyberattacks as the preeminent threat.
Fewer people in the countries surveyed are concerned about global poverty, long-standing conflict between countries or ethnic groups, or large-scale migration. Several years ago, the large numbers of refugees leaving places like Iraq and Syria were considered a top threat by many in Italy and the United Kingdom. Today, in 11 of the 14 countries surveyed, the movement of large numbers of people from one country to another is seen as the least concerning threat among the nine threats tested.
With the global economy hard hit by COVID-19 related disruptions, concerns about the global economy have increased substantially in most of the countries since the question was last asked in 2018. Majorities in 10 of the 14 countries polled describe the condition of the global economy as a major threat.
Broadly speaking, older people across the 14 countries are more concerned by security threats. In the case of terrorism, for instance, a median of 72% among those ages 50 and older say it is a major threat, compared with 53% among those who are 18 to 29. Similar age gaps appear in concerns about cyberattacks and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Women tend to be more concerned about most of the various threats tested, especially climate change and terrorism, but also the spread of infectious disease and global poverty.
Ideologically, in most countries, those on the political left tend to be more worried about climate change than those on the right, while those on the right voice greater concern over terrorism and large-scale migration.
And when it comes to the global economy, those who say the economy in their country is doing poorly or are concerned about the future of their economy are more likely to see the condition of the global economy as a major threat.
These are among the findings of a new Pew Research Center survey of adults conducted by telephone between June 10 and Aug. 3, 2020, in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The margin of error varied by national sample from plus or minus 3.1 percentage points to plus or minus 4.2 points. For details on the number of interviews, sampling design and languages for the survey, see the Methodology.
Majorities in all 14 countries surveyed agree that global climate change and the spread of infectious diseases pose major threats to their country. Concern about climate change is especially high in Spain, France, Italy, South Korea and Japan, with at least eight-in-ten in each country describing it as a major threat.
The share who see global warming as a major threat is significantly higher today in nine of the 10 countries the Center has tracked over the past seven years. For instance, in the UK, 71% now say global climate change is a major threat, compared with 48% when the question was first asked in 2013 – an increase of 23 percentage points. Concern, however, has recently leveled off: In the UK and other countries tracked, worries about climate change have changed little since 2018.
In all countries surveyed, those on the ideological left are more likely than those on the right to consider global climate change a major threat. In nine countries, women are more likely than men to see global climate change as a major threat.
Majorities in each of the countries polled also see the spread of infectious diseases as a major threat. Heightened concern is especially evident in South Korea and Japan, where around nine-in-ten consider the infectious diseases a major threat. About eight-in-ten also hold this opinion in Spain and the U.S., the latter of which continues to have the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world.
Concerns about the spread of infectious diseases do not vary significantly by income or educational attainment in most countries. Women, however, are generally more concerned about the threat of disease than men in most of the countries surveyed.
Notably, in most countries, those who believe their national government did not handle the current pandemic well are not more likely to see the spread of infectious disease as a major threat.
Medians of nearly two-thirds say terrorism (66%) and cyberattacks (65%) pose major threats to their country, while roughly six-in-ten (61%) say the same about the spread of nuclear weapons. In nine countries, those on the ideological right are more likely than those on the left to say that terrorism is a major threat to their country.
In prior years, Pew Research Center had asked about the threat posed by specific groups, such as the Islamic militant group known as ISIS. Public worries about the threat posed by ISIS were widespread. Similarly, in 2020 approximately half or more in 12 of the 14 countries polled describe terrorism as a major threat, including about three-quarters or more in France (80%), Japan (77%) and Spain (74%).
Cyberattacks are a pronounced concern in several countries surveyed, including Australia (70%) and Denmark (66%), where they are the most frequently mentioned major threat. Cyberattacks are also the second-most common major threat response in South Korea, the U.S., the Netherlands and Germany among the nine threats tested on the survey.
Worries about cyberattacks have quickly intensified in some countries. Since 2016, the share of Australians describing such attacks as a major threat has grown from 47% to 70%. Double-digit increases over the same period can also be observed in Netherlands (up 13 percentage points), Japan (+12 points) and Canada (+10 points).
The proliferation of nuclear weapons often trails terrorism and cyberattacks as a perceived security threat. Exceptions to this pattern include Japan (87% say this is a major threat) and Italy (73%). Among the countries polled, Danes are the least concerned about the spread of nuclear arms (35%). In seven of the countries, women are more likely than men to say the spread of nuclear weapons is a major threat.
Across the three security risks tested, people ages 50 and older are more likely than younger adults to say each is a major threat. For example, in the U.S., 80% of those 50 and older say terrorism is a top threat, compared with only 51% of 18- to 29-year-olds. Similar divides occur on the question of cyberattacks and the spread of nuclear weapons in a majority of countries polled.
The International Monetary Fund projects that the global economy will contract in 2020 by 4.9%. Across the 14 countries polled, a median of roughly six-in-ten would seem to share this gloomy outlook, describing the condition of the global economy as a major threat. South Koreans are the most concerned – more than eight-in-ten (83%) describe the global economic situation as a major threat. Least worried are Danes and Swedes (each 40%).
Overall, concerns about global poverty trail worries about the overall global economy. A median of 53% say that global poverty poses a major threat to their country. The French and Spanish show the greatest concern, with about three-quarters in each country describing global poverty as a major threat.
Opinions about the condition of the global economy have shifted significantly in recent years. In nearly every country where the question was also posed in 2018, the share who feel threatened by the world economic situation has increased by at least 10 percentage points. This shift has been most pronounced in the UK, where 65% now say the condition of the global economy is a major threat, compared with 41% who held this view two years ago – a 24 percentage point increase. Shifts of at least 20 points can also be observed in Japan (+22 points), which experienced its greatest fall on record in gross domestic product, and France (+21 points), where the GDP contracted by 13.8% in the second quarter of 2020.
Those who say the current economic situation in their country is bad are more likely than those who think the situation is good to see the condition of the world economy as a major threat to their country. For example, in Belgium, 64% of those who think the current economic situation is bad say the international economic situation is a major threat, compared with 41% of those who positively evaluate the Belgian economy.
Similarly, those who think that the economic situation in their country will worsen in the next 12 months are also more likely to look at the condition of the world’s economy as a major threat. In Belgium, for example, 64% of people who think the national economy will worsen also see the world economy as a major threat. By comparison, 50% of Belgians who expect the economy to stay the same see the global economy as a major threat, as do 46% who expect the Belgian economy to improve.
In general, those ages 50 and older are more likely than their younger counterparts to see global poverty as a major threat to their country. For example, in the Netherlands, 61% of those 50 and older see global poverty as a major threat, while only 35% of those ages 18 to 29 say the same. In many countries, women, those with less education and those with lower incomes are more likely to classify global poverty as a major threat.
The survey also asks about ethnic or international conflict and large-scale migration. In most countries, no more than half see either issue as a major threat to their country. Only in South Korea and France do clear majorities say that long-standing conflicts between countries or ethnic groups constitute a major threat. For the most part, those with lower incomes and less education are more inclined to see long-standing conflicts between countries or ethnic groups as major threats.
With the exception of South Korea (52%), fewer than half describe large-scale migration as a major threat. Concern about the movement of large numbers of people from one country to another are generally more prevalent among those 50 and older. In Belgium, for instance, 49% of those 50 and older see immigration as a major threat, whereas only 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds say the same.
For example, 52% of those in the U.S. who describe themselves as conservative say that the large numbers of people moving from one country to another are a major threat, versus just 17% among self-described liberals. And in Sweden, half of those on the ideological right see large-scale migration as a major threat, compared with only two-in-ten of those on the political left. In all, significant ideological differences of this nature appear in all countries surveyed but Spain. (Political ideology was not asked in Japan.)