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Which Wealthy Country Is Most Pessimistic On Climate Change?


If you’re reading this, there’s a fair chance that you care about climate change. But do you believe we’re able to do anything to reduce it?

If you live in the U.K., the answer is: probably not. A new survey suggests that out of five key industrialized nations, Britain is the least optimistic on climate change, with just 48% of people believing humanity can overcome the challenge. 

Americans, for their part, are notably more upbeat: 60% believe we can rise to the moment and prevent climate disaster. But on the other hand, most citizens of the five nations surveyed (namely Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K.) believe their governments are not doing enough on climate action. Some 75% of respondents said they thought their government should do more to reduce emissions.

The survey, by Climate Catalyst, an initiative run by Australian research firm Glow, polled a total of 5,256 people from across the five countries—a little over 1,000 people from each country—in March this year. The authors state that their goal is to “measure how well governments around the world are meeting the expectations of their citizens.” See here for a concise explanation of why researchers aim at about a thousand people for opinion polls.

The findings are as notable for the areas of divergence as they are for their points of consensus. In many areas, New Zealand turned out to be a climate and leadership outlier. For example, a huge majority—56%—of New Zealanders are satisfied with their government’s climate change performance, versus 21% who are unsatisfied. In the U.K. and the U.S., that split is almost even, with 40% satisfied and 37% unsatisfied in Britain, and a 42%/40% split in the U.S.

That disparity is even more pronounced when it comes to trust in government. In answer to the question “How much do you trust the elected government of your nation to do what is right?” New Zealanders gave their elected representatives a net trust score of +15 points. In answer to the same question, Americans rated their government at a dismal -15 points. Canadians came out with apparently neutral feelings about their government’s propensity for doing the right thing, with a trust score of +1.

Australians turned out to be least satisfied with their leaders’ performance, with just 39% of Aussies feeling good about their government’s approach to green issues—perhaps not surprising, given the administration’s enthusiasm for coal. Yet according to the survey, only 49% of Australians want to see coal exports banned. 

Also of note, the study suggests large proportions of Americans (46%), Canadians (47%), Brits (44%) and Australians (38%) support nuclear generation. Again, only in New Zealand, with its small population and abundant natural resources, do a majority (42%) oppose nuclear power.

The findings are a useful snapshot of public sentiment at a crucial time for governments who are engaged in keeping their economies afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. A wealth of evidence suggests that to stimulate growth while mitigating climate risks, “green” recovery strategies are essential.

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But so far there has been little indication that governments are listening to the public, and much less the experts, when it comes to recovery. In the U.K., Green groups reacted with dismay to Boris Johnson’s recent proposals to “build, build, build” his way out of recession—plans that included only a throwaway mention of climate-friendly initiatives. Yesterday, British chancellor Rishi Sunak set out a “plan for jobs” to aid the economy, including a £3 billion ($3.8 billion) green investment package to insulate homes and reduce emissions. But Greenpeace U.K. noted that the sum pales in comparison to similar plans in Germany and France, which have announced carbon-cutting funds of some $45 billion and $17 billion respectively.

Meanwhile in the U.S., Yale University has warned that current recovery plans herald a return to business as usual, and amount to a giveaway to oil, gas and mining interests. Indeed, climate denialism in the U.S. is still rampant: a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found Americans take climate change less seriously than any other nation: 12% say they believe climate change is “not serious,” compared with a global average of 3%. The U.S. and Australia come at the very bottom of the Climate Change Performance Index of countries compiled by the Climate Action Network.

But as Ed Hirs of the University of Houston Energy Fellows has explained on these very pages, the cost of ignoring climate change will inevitably be far greater than any savings made in avoiding the problem. And much like the coronavirus, climate change does not discriminate. It doesn’t care about excuses, bottom lines or overheads. In the rush to recover from COVID-19, governments who do not pay heed to the far larger existential challenge may find themselves paying a much bigger bill—not only financially and politically, but in human lives.

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