The Pew Research Center has released a fascinating new set of global public opinion data on global attitudes toward climate change. The release is timely as it comes weeks before global leaders convene at the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) United Nations climate talks in Paris later this month. There, they will be under pressure to come up with a binding set of credible commitments to slow the pace of global climate change. But for many countries, especially democracies, doing so without consideration of public opinion will be impossible.
The new Pew data, which was collected in 40 major countries, shows majorities in all of them citing climate change as a very serious problem to be dealt with. Asia is of particular interest here since several Asian states are major emitters of greenhouse gas. China and India, in particular, come in at first and third place respectively in terms of total emissions.
What’s stark about the Pew data is that the Asia-Pacific region, while worried about climate change overall, is less worried than other parts of the world. The percentage of Asia-Pacific respondents that agreed with the statements that “Climate change is a very serious problem,” that “Climate change is harming people now,” and are “Very concerned that climate change will harm me personally” is lower than the global median. 45 percent of Asia-Pacific respondents agreed with the first statement, 48 percent with the second, and 37 percent with the third. The only other region where fewer than half of all respondents expressed similar beliefs was the Middle East.
At a more granular level, opinions on climate change vary across Asia. In Asia, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are among the most concerned about the effects of climate change with 76 percent, 72 percent, and 69 percent of respondents respectively stating they agree that “Global climate change is a very serious problem.” Pew found in a separate study of Indian attitudes toward the foreign policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government that Indians see climate change as their top international concern, outranking cyberattacks, economic instability, ISIS, and territorial disputes with China (I wrote on that survey here). That same study showed that 74 percent of Indians see air pollution as a major problem.
The latest Pew climate data shows that China is an outlier in terms of attitudes toward climate change in Asia. Just 18 percent of Chinese respondents cited climate change as a very serious problem. This number is low, but somewhat out of sync with a recent survey conducted by Chinese state media agency Xinhua. The Xinhua survey, which focused on Chinese expectations for the 13th five-year plan, saw environmental protection issues at the top of what Chinese citizens were concerned about. In that survey, 73.8 percent of respondents noted that the environment was their top concern.
Though environmental protection is substantively different from climate change, the Xinhua survey also asked respondents to cite what they’d like to see as a policy focus within environmental protection. Here, respondents were clearer: 76.4 percent wanted more investigation of polluted companies, 72.3 percent wanted improved air quality, and 58.6 percent wanted a low-carbon lifestyle. Interestingly, the new Pew data shows that China experienced a statistically significant dip of 23 percentage points since 2010 in the number of Chinese who saw climate change as a very serious problem. In 2010, 41 percent of Chinese respondents cited the issue as a very serious problem.
The new Pew survey also finds that most major Asian states see drought as the top most concerning negative consequence of global climate change. Respondents in India (53 percent), Philippines (51 percent), South Korea (47 percent), Australia (45 percent), Vietnam (44 percent), and China (38 percent) all cited drought as their top concern. Malaysia (36 percent), Japan (45 percent), and Pakistan (34 percent) cited severe weather as their top concern (Malaysians are equally concerned about extreme heat).
What should be reassuring ahead of the Paris climate talks is that, with the exception of Pakistan, all Asian states surveyed in the new Pew dataset have majorities supporting government action on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Even in Pakistan, the one outlier among the 40 states surveyed, support stands at 48 percent. Notably, though Indians are the most concerned about climate overall, at 70 percent, Indian support for government action on limiting emissions is the third-lowest among the Asian states surveyed. South Korea and Japan, the two most developed Asian states in the sample, voice full-throated support for emissions limits with 89 percent and 83 percent in support respectively.
As authors in the Diplomat and elsewhere have discussed recently, China, India, and other Asian states will receive much attention in Paris. Heading into the Paris talks, Asian leaders can head in knowing that even if they have to agree to emissions caps that will ultimately suppress their rate of growth or development, they will generally have the backing of public opinion back home. With 60 percent of the world’s population, how Asians see climate change will matter deeply for global policy-making.