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Cultural Attitudes Impact Climate Change Policies: It's Time for the US to Lead

In spite of priding itself on being a nation of science, surveys show that the U.S. is in last place when it comes to its public's understanding of humans' impact on climate change. The attitudes of China and India's populations are somewhat more enlightened. The actions of all three nations will be absolutely critical to addressing global warming.

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Attitudes about global warming differ markedly between regions. This accounts at least in part for the footdragging in the global arena on reaching an agreement. In a notable recent survey on 2010 climate change attitudes and perceptions (commissioned by the World Bank) China and U.S. rank the lowest (along with Russia) in taking climate change seriously (see Figure 1). This is very worrisome, because together China and the U.S. have more influence on the debate and the outcome than any other two nations on the planet. As the largest economy in the world, the U.S. has the greatest responsibility for leadership, but has unfortunately not stepped forward to take that role on this issue. As the most populous nation on earth - and more recently achieving the ignominious distinction of becoming the largest CO2 emitter in the world - China has the greatest responsibility to rein in per-capita emissions. 






Oddly, Chinese public opinion is decidedly more favorable when asked whether dealing with climate change should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth. On that question, China is in the middle of the pack, but U.S. is dead last - the least likely of any of the nations polled to want to incur a sacrifice to stop global warming (see Figure 2). It is no wonder that it has been so hard for the U.S. to take the leadership role on this critical global issue.










An earlier poll by World Public Opinion also showed that the U.S. public placed the lowest priority on their government addressing climate change of any of the nations in the survey (see Figure 3).  Priorities were consistently and considerably higher across Europe and most of Asia. 


Figure 3 - 2009 Survey: What Priority Should Governments Place on Addressing Climate Change?


The Role of China and India

It is noteworthy that the citizens of China, and to a slightly lesser extent India, believe that their countries should place a high priority on addressing climate change.  Together they account for well over a third of the world's population (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 - Global Population Share by Region (Color-coded) and Country

's population is growing faster than China's, due in large part, to China's "one couple-one child" policy. The Population Reference Bureau
predicts that by the middle of this century, India will have 1.75 billion people and China will have 1.43 billion.

 Figure 5 - Population Changes 2009 to 2050

That is why those two nations play a particularly important role in curbing climate change. No doubt both China and India have pretty miserable track records up to now in protecting the environment. There are signs of hope. China
installed more new wind turbines in 2009 (13GW), than either the EU (10.5 GW) or the U.S. (9.9 GW). Nevertheless, at least one scholar has made the case that if all the countries on the planet keep the promises they made at the recent Copenhagen climate summit, then the emerging economies (largely China and India) will be responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 (see Figure 6 below). The unspoken implication is that it doesn't really matter much what the U.S. and the rest of the developed nations do.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by the impassioned online discussion following the "Inconvenient Carbon Truths About China" article, from which Figure 6 below came.

Figure 6 - Prediction of China and Emerging Economies' share of GHG Emissions Through 2050


Of course the emerging economies will play a tremendously important role in controlling global warming, but this diagram has some misleading assumptions and implications.

·      It is not realistic for China's economy to continue growing at 10% for another 40 years.  The growth rate will slow down. That said, this chart still makes a very important point about the critical role and high share of responsibility emerging economies play in the fight to reduce GHG's, even if it is somewhat exaggerated above.

·      Green technologies cannot become inexpensive without investment and high volumes of production.  Where will those high volumes come from? The developed nations must lead this acceleration in the volumes of green energy technology adoption (solar, wind, etc.).  Then they can become affordable enough for the emerging economies.

The U.S. in particular is still by far the leading economy and for that matter the leading cultural influencer in the world. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to stop denying the urgency and take the lead in this critical issue that is so pivotal to the future of mankind.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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