August 13, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

A Hot Mess: Relative Rankings of Climate Change as a Major Threat

Over the first few days of August, I participated in a training session along with over a thousand climate leader candidates for the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, a grassroots network of climate leaders trained by Al Gore and others to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis.

The group of climate trainees included individuals from 70 different countries (and all 50 US states), and their task is to raise awareness and increase public concern at the local, national and international level.  Already familiar with American public perceptions of climate change, I decided after the training to track down a comparison of international views of climate change.  Fortunately, Pew research has done another great multinational comparison of the top global threats in North America, and among select countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia/Pacific countries, Latin America and Africa.

While China and the US are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world, the publics in those countries are not as concerned about climate change as are publics in less polluting countries.  Median percentage-wise, fewer in both the US (40%) and China (39%) say that global climate change is a major threat than median averages in Canada (54%), Europe (54%), Asia/Pacific nations (56% including China and Pakistan), Latin America (65%) and Africa (54%).  The Middle East median average (42%) of those believing that climate change is a major threat is about the same as in US and China.

But when reviewing the results in relative ranking to other top threats, global warming is a TOP concern in China (39% major threat), along with the threat of US power and influence (39%) and international financial stability (38%).  In fact, among the East Asian countries surveyed, climate change ranks as the top concern for Australians (52%), Indonesians (59%), Filipinos (66%), and South Koreans (85%).  Climate change is also among the top three major threats for the Japanese (72%), just after North Korea's nuclear program (77%) and China's power and influence (74%).

Americans are, of course, further away from the threat from Pyongyang than the Asia-Pacific countries; nevertheless, the threat from North Korea's nuclear program is more alarming than climate change to US citizens. Climate change is the sixth most urgent threat to Americans (40%), after North Korea (59%), Islamic extremist groups (56%), Iran's nuclear program (54%), International financial stability (52%), and China's power and influence (44%).

Some readers might say that Asian publics are more focused on the issue of climate change because of their proximity to China, heightening their concern about China's impact on the climate.  But our Canadian neighbors rank global climate change as the top major threat  facing their country (54%), followed by North Korea's nuclear program (47%) and international financial stability (45%). Perhaps Canadian concern is heightened by proximity to the US.

The bottom line is that publics in the world’s top polluting countries are not nearly concerned enough about their countries’ impact on the planet.  We need to make the case - as the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 does -  that experts are predicting profound and adverse effects from climate change beyond extreme weather that could affect global agriculture, food supplies and water.  Josh Busby, a RunningNumbers guest blogger and author of a Council on Foreign Relations report on climate change and national security, points out that the effects of climate change could stretch US disaster-response capabilities for both domestic and international crises.  Moreover, the indirect effects of climate change could lead to massive migration shifts to meet resource needs, contributing to regional competition, hostilities or political instability.

I guess we have our work cut out for us.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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