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Which Countries Are Most Open to Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

A new study shows large gaps between concern about climate change and the willingness to act

Clouds of smoke pour from a smokestack (© Oliver Steinberger/fstop/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

At this week’s United Nations Conference on Climate Change, over 40,000 attendees will discuss the future of global attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But which countries are the biggest supporters of climate change action? 

A new study by Pew Research shows that in most countries, there’s a large gap between concern about climate change and the willingness to act. But the results are a bit different than you might expect.

The study, which polled people in 40 nations, found that people worldwide are worried about how climate change will affect Earth’s future. A majority of people surveyed in each nation felt that climate change is a serious problem, and 54 percent worldwide characterized climate change as “a very serious problem.”

The most concerned respondents were in Latin America (74 percent) and Africa (61 percent), with the smallest number of concerned citizens in the Middle East (38 percent). United States respondents ranked near the bottom of concern—only 45 percent of Americans surveyed believe that global warming is very serious, and only 30 percent were “very concerned that climate change will harm me personally.”

The poll also showed that concern and willingness to act are two very different things. But surprisingly, even people who didn't believe climate change was a serious concern called for action to curb emissions.

The survey found that in 37 out of 40 nations polled, support of limiting greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international agreement exceeded personal concern about climate change as a “very serious” problem. A median of 78 percent of respondents felt that treaties should be in place, despite only 54 percent agreeing that climate change is “very serious.”

In places like China, there was a 53 percentage point differential between personal concern about climate change (18 percent) and support of an international treaty to cut emissions (71 percent). The United States had a smaller differential: 45 percent were personally concerned, while 69 percent supported an international treaty. In India, the differential was only six percentage points. Pew concludes that for people in many countries, a “better safe than sorry” attitude prevails.

But despite growing awareness of the effects of climate change, there are still large gaps in who supports real action. Even though a global median of 51 percent of respondents believe that people are already being harmed by climate change, respondents from many of the countries that emit the most greenhouse gas have the smallest amount of support for limiting their emissions. The two biggest opponents of limiting greenhouse gas emissions were Turkey (26 percent opposed) and the United States (24 percent opposed).

So who’s most open to climate change curbs? To meet the world’s most climate-aware respondents, you’ll want to travel to Uganda (91 percent in favor, five percent opposed to limiting emissions), Spain (91 percent in favor, six percent opposed) and Tanzania (90 percent in favor, seven percent opposed).

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