Why are China and the US different?

From the latest BBC World Service survey, released this week:

The poll also shows that, in spite of the global recession, an average of 61% support their governments making investments to address climate change, even if these investments hurt the economy.

However, the poll finds that public opinion in the world’s two largest emitters of CO2 is more ambivalent. While the Chinese are the most likely to support government investments to address climate change even if these harm the economy (with 89% in favour), only 52% of Americans feel the same way. Also, the percentage of American (45%) and Chinese citizens (57%) who see climate change as “very serious” is below the 23-country average of 64%.

So why are China and the US different?

Economics would be an obvious factor to look at in international differences on attitudes to climate change. Although a great deal can be done through money-saving efficiency measures, avoiding dangerous levels of climate change will also cost substantial sums of money.

But a country’s wealth has surprisingly low correlation to its many of its citizens’ views on climate change, an unpublished paper by two political scientists, Yael Wolinsky-Nahmias and So Young Kim, found.

Fewer studies examined the influence of a country economic development on public opinion regarding climate change. Steve Brechin found no significant differences between more and less affluent countries in public knowledge of climate change (Brechin 2003). This is somewhat surprising given differences in access to information and media reach between some less developed countries and most developed countries.4

Wolinsky and Kim examined earlier iterations of the BBC World Service poll, and the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey – two of the only comprehensive international surveys on climate change. They found limited support for a link between concern about climate change and GDP:

In both figures, countries with higher GDP per capita generally show higher levels of “strong” concern about the effects of energy use (as indicated by “very concerned”), though such a pattern is less visible in the case of the responses about global warming as a very serious problem. The statistical analysis indeed shows an interesting difference between the two questions.5

Questions more specifically about energy use and climate change, however, elicited a stronger correlation:

While Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient is relatively low and insignificant between the response rates for global warming as a very serious problem and GDP per capita, it is very large and significant between the response rates for energy use causing. This suggests that varying degrees of public concern about the threat of global warming across countries has little to do with a country.s level of economic development. In contrast, public concern about energy use causing climate change has a significant correlation with GDP per capita.

They write that bringing energy use into the equation “suggests a direct link between the respondents. everyday lives and the generally abstract issue of climate change” – so it’s perhaps not surprising that a stronger link to GDP is apparent when the issue of consumption is raised. However two countries were outliers in this respect: Brazil had a higher rate of rate of response about energy use causing global warming than its average GDP per capita would suggest while the US had a lower rate.

In fact the US tends to rate lower than other western developed countries on most levels – although the UK sometimes gives it a run for its money, as an FT Harris poll from a few months back suggests.

The new BBC World Service poll also showed that China is in some ways an outlier. Majorities in every other country surveyed favoured ‘strong action’ on climate change, but:

In comparison, Chinese opinion about Copenhagen favours a “moderate approach” involving “only gradual action” (49%) over a “leadership approach” (37%). In the United States, 36% favour a “moderate approach” and 14% oppose any agreement, outweighing the 46% of Americans who want their government to show leadership.

All this makes us wonder if a repeated reminders that you are in one of the world’s biggest polluting country is a factor stronger than GDP.

Related links:

Climategate, and why we disagree (FT Energy Source)
Why we don’t do much about climate change (FT Energy Source)

Energy Source is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

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