Survey finds U.S., European publics underestimate climate crisis

Survey finds U.S., European publics underestimate climate crisis

Low levels of public awareness in the United States and eight European countries with respect to the role of humans in climate change is linked to a lack of urgency about its long-term impacts and the need to take action now, a report from the Open Society Foundations finds.

Based on a survey commissioned by the nonpartisan think tank d|part and the Open Society European Policy Institute, the report, From climate change awareness to climate crisis action (52 pages, PDF), found that large majorities of respondents in the Czech Republic (92 percent), France (90 percent), Germany (95 percent), Italy (93 percent), Poland (93 percent), Spain (96 percent), Sweden (84 percent), the United Kingdom (91 percent), and the United States (83 percent) were aware that the climate is "probably" or "definitely" changing. Majorities ranging from 79 percent in the U.S. to 90 percent in Italy also were aware that human activity is an important driver of climate change. At the same time, at least a third of respondents in all nine countries and at least half in the Czech Republic (67 percent), Poland (55 percent), and the U.S. (50 percent) believed that "scientists are roughly equally divided on whether climate change is man-made or not" — despite agreement among 97 percent of climate scientists that human activity is the biggest factor in recent global warming.

The survey also found that only a quarter (23 percent) of French respondents expected the impact of climate change  to be "rather negative," with the percentage in other countries ranging from 49 percent in Poland and 50 percent in the U.S. to 64 percent in Germany, while only a majority of Spanish respondents said they expected climate change to have a negative impact on their own country (55 percent) and families (54 percent) by 2035. While nearly two in five respondents in France, Italy, and Spain and a third of respondents in Germany expected their lives to "be strongly disrupted by climate change in a way that will change it fundamentally" or to "become very hard and a deep struggle to secure even basic needs because of climate change," less than a third of respondents in the Czech Republic, Poland, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S. said the same.

According to the survey, a respondent's awareness of the role of human activity in climate change appears to be an important indicator of his or her sense of urgency and level of personal concern about the impact of climate change and support for climate action. In seven of the nine countries surveyed, respondents who believe that climate change is mostly or entirely caused by humans were twice as likely as those who believe it is caused equally by humans and non-human factors to expect a negative impact on their own lives by 2035. And while majorities in France (60 percent), Germany (64 percent), Italy (73 percent), Poland (64 percent), Spain (80 percent), the UK (58 percent), and the U.S. (57 percent) agreed that "we should do everything we can to stop climate change," those who believe humans are responsible for climate change were significantly more likely to say so and to have personally taken action to slow or mitigate climate change effects. 

"Our research shows that the public, of all ages, in Europe and the United States want to see action in response to climate change," said Jan Eichhorn, research director of d|part and lead author of the study. "People believe primary responsibility is with their state and international organizations such as the EU and are open to supporting more extensive action, but this requires urgent further work from political and civil society actors."