Emergency

Largest-ever climate change survey reveals 5 facts critical for the future

1.2 million people were asked about the crisis.

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The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970, drawing 20 million participants across the United States. Nearly 50 years later, more than 1.3 million people from 123 countries took to the streets to join climate strikes — one of the largest climate protest movements in history.

Public interest in fighting the climate crisis is evolving and expanding. However, it's historically difficult to gauge the exact strength of global support for climate actions because of a lack of quantifiable data.

The People's Climate Vote, the world's largest survey of public opinion on climate change ever, is an attempt to change that. Sixty-four percent of the 1.2 million respondents recognized climate change as an emergency. Part of the United Nation's Mission 1.5 campaign, the survey is one of the most robust, systematic evaluations of public opinion on climate change to date.

While the survey suggests broad global concern about the climate crisis, the results also indicate significant differences in the levels of support for specific policies based on demographics like education and income.

Overall, there are five key takeaways. These can be used to shape future policy:

  • Most people agree the climate crisis is an emergency.
  • Four climate policies are the most popular.
  • The most educated are the most likely to support new policies.
  • There's a link between gender and climate policy support.
  • Young people are more likely to see climate change as an emergency

The report was released on Tuesday.

Photo shows someone playing Bad Piggies, the newest game launched by Finnish Rovio Entertainment, the creators of Angry Birds. The climate change survey reached out to survey participants through ads on mobile games.VESA MOILANEN/AFP/GettyImages

How they did it — People's Climate Vote, which surveyed over a million respondents from 50 countries, recruited participants using advertisements on popular mobile gaming apps like Angry Birds.

Due to the unique nature of their outreach campaign on mobile gaming platforms, the survey reached people in hard-to-reach audiences in traditional polling, like people under the age of 18.

The survey demonstrated "mobile gaming networks can not only reach a lot of people, they can engage different kinds of people in a diverse group of countries," report co-author Stephen Fisher, a professor at the University of Oxford, said.

As a result, survey participants of various backgrounds responded from every corner of the globe, ranging from Belize to Pakistan. The results were processed by analysts at the University of Oxford, who categorized respondents by their nation, gender, age, education, geographic region, and type of country group.

The survey covered four types of country groups:

  • High-income
  • Middle-income
  • Least developed countries (LDCs)
  • Small island developing states (SIDs)

The survey asked the participants eight total questions, including: "Do you think climate change is a global emergency? If yes, what should the world do about it?"

The remaining six multiple-choice questions polled participants about the 18 climate policies that they most supported most.

The survey has its limitations — out of the 1.2 million respondents, only 35 percent (421,170 people) answered all eight questions. It also may undersample people who don't play mobile games as frequently — such as people over the age of 60 — and those who may lack access to such technology due to the digital divide.

However, the People's Climate Vote still provides the biggest, comprehensive public opinion polling data on climate change to date, revealing 5 key takeaways.

1. Most people agree climate change is an emergency

A figure from the study showing country-group variations in climate beliefs.

Overall, 64 percent of respondents recognized that climate change is an emergency. However, degrees of support varied across nations.

Support for climate change beliefs was especially high in middle-income countries like South Africa (76%) and the Philippines (74%), as well as people in small island developing nations, whose homes are literally vanishing from rising sea levels due to climate change. The least developed countries expressed less support at 58 percent.

Among the high-income countries, the U.S. and Chile had the lowest number of citizens recognizing the climate emergency at 65 percent and 66 percent, respectively. Those figures are still solid majorities and a stark difference when compared to past surveys. For example, in 2009, 41 percent of Americans said the "seriousness of global warming" was exaggerated.

Among high-income countries, the United Kingdom and Italy — both co-hosts of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference — led the pack, with 81 percent of respondents in both countries recognizing climate change as an emergency.

Among the respondents that believe in a climate emergency, 59 percent said that we should act urgently and do everything necessary to tackle the issue.

But, perhaps more surprisingly are the 41 percent did not demand urgent action, including respondents that favored a more moderate 'wait-and-see' approach that is out of step with the Paris Agreement's urgent goals of limiting global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius.

According to the report, this finding suggests that "that more education is required even for those people who are already concerned about climate change."

2. Four climate policies are the most popular

A figure from the study showing support for different climate policies, comparing all countries to small island nations.

Although the preference for different climate policies varied across the globe, four specific policies emerged with a majority of support in every nation:

  1. Conservation of forests and land (54 percent)
  2. Solar, wind, and renewable power (53 percent)
  3. Climate-friendly farming techniques (52 percent)
  4. Investing more in green businesses and jobs (50 percent)

Support for these policies varied by region. For example, countries affected the most by deforestation and agricultural land-use policies, like Brazil and Indonesia, supported forest conservation the most.

Meanwhile, just 41 percent of respondents in India supported climate-friendly farming techniques. Overall, the responses suggest that countries with higher agricultural emissions may be less likely to favor changes to current farming practices.

Policies stressing stricter corporate regulations and investment in green jobs carried strong appeal among G20 economies. Highly urbanized countries, likewise, favored clean transportation policies.

Other policies were less popular with the global public. For example, while some island nations like Japan and the United Kingdom favored ocean conservation strongly, other landlocked nations like Iraq did not particularly care about the issue.

However, the report also states that people's lack of support for certain policies may not necessarily suggest opposition to that policy, but, rather, ignorance. The respondents may lack sufficient information about the policy initiative, suggesting that further education is required so that can citizens can generate fully informed opinions about climate change.

3. The most educated are the most likely to support new policies

A figure from the study showing the impact of education on climate beliefs.

The report found one factor shaped respondents' choices in the survey the most: education level.

The report states:

"Across the entire survey, the most profound driver of public opinion on climate change was a respondent’s level of education."

People with a postsecondary education, such as college, recognized climate change as an emergency 8 percent more than people with just a secondary or high school education.

This correlation between education and climate belief held true, regardless of whether the participants lived in a high-income country — like Germany — or one of the least developed countries — like Bhutan.

Respondents with a postsecondary education also expressed 58 percent approval for all 18 climate policy proposals in the survey, which is greater than the 42 percent for all survey respondents.

4. There's a link between gender and climate policy support

A figure from the study illustrating the gender divide in climate beliefs.

Overall, male-identifying respondents were more likely to see climate change as an emergency than female-identifying respondents — but only by 4 percent.

But the numbers look different when viewed on a country-by-country basis, and at first glance, may prompt an inaccurate view of the situation.

In three countries — Canada, United States, and Australia — women and girls were much more likely than men and boys to report climate change as an emergency. This may suggest a correlation with higher education; women received 57 percent of U.S bachelor's degrees awarded in 2016-17.

On the other hand, in four countries — Nigeria, Vietnam, Georgia, and India — men and boys were far more likely than women and girls to report climate change as an emergency. The report suggests this finding correlates not only with a lack of higher education for women and girls in these countries, but also a lack of gender empowerment and equality for women.

Only in a handful of countries, like Argentina and Poland, were men and women in agreement on their climate beliefs.

Meanwhile, when it came to policy, men and boys supported globally popular actions like purchasing electric vehicles, deploying renewable energy, and investing in green jobs.

Women, on the other hand, favored less popular policies like providing good and affordable insurance, sharing information on product sourcing, reducing fossil-fuel burning pollutants, and supporting indigenous environmental leaders.

5. Young people are more likely to see climate change as an emergency

A figure from the study showing the impact of age on climate beliefs.

The study surveyed more than 500,000 people under the age of 18, finding this group is more likely to recognize climate change as an emergency than those over the age of 60. This was true across countries.

This is not to say that only young people care about the climate crisis. According to the study:

"Nearly 70% of under-18s said that climate change is a global emergency, compared to 65% of those aged 18-35, 66% aged 36-59 and 58% of those aged over 60."

Senior citizens in the United Kingdom expressed the greatest degree of climate change concern, with 78 percent of 60-plus individuals recognizing climate change on the other hand. The U.S. fell a little bit lower with 61 percent support among older individuals.

The country with the lowest degree of support among seniors was Sri Lanka at 38 percent, despite the fact that the country is vulnerable to sea level rises and extreme weather events.

It's unclear whether certain factors — such as education levels or media literacy — could explain the difference in climate change beliefs between boomers in different countries.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the United Nations Signing Ceremony for the Paris Agreement climate change accord that came out of negotiations at the COP21 climate summit last December in Paris on April 22, 2016 in New York CitySpencer Platt/Getty Images

Why it matters — The survey signals strong public support for policies that can mitigate the crisis. Public support, in turn, is one of the key factors that could pressure policymakers to act on climate change, according to the report authors.

It also suggests which policies leaders may want to pursue, depending on their nation's interests.

However, the report also suggests there are significant areas where people may lack adequate knowledge on climate change, indicating gaps where educators must step in to inform the general public about the dangers of climate change.

As we begin to slowly recover from a global pandemic, some nations will inevitably begin kickstarting their economies, which could lead to a rise in emissions depending on which climate policies they prioritize — or don't. The report comes at the right time as political leaders make decisions that will impact not only short-term economic gains, but also the long-term future of our climate.

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