Here’s one thing citizens of the United States, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories have in common: According to a new 19-country public opinion poll on climate change, they’re the least likely to want more action on the issue from their governments.

American citizens showed the least interest of all the countries in response to this question: “How high a priority do you think the government should place on addressing climate change?”

The poll released today by covered 19 nations that include the world’s largest greenhouse-gas emitters and together comprise 60 percent of the world’s population. A total of 18,578 respondents were asked about what their government is already doing, what it should be doing, and how high a priority their fellow citizens consider addressing climate change to be.

The U.S. respondents also scored lowest when they were asked to rank from 1 to 10, “How high a priority does the government [currently] place on addressing climate change?”

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Taken together, the two questions suggest that 52 percent of Americans want their government to do more than it currently is on the issue. In 15 of the 19 nations, majorities said their government should make addressing climate change a higher priority.

It’s not just you

The survey also found most people underestimate the amount of support their peers have for addressing the shared threat of climate change. In other words, your neighbors are probably more willing than you think to support a climate plan. Respondents across all countries estimated that their peers gave climate change a 6.42 priority (10 being the highest priority). In fact, the average priority was higher—7.33. director Steven Kull says the sociological term for this common phenomenon is “pluralistic ignorance.”

“This is a sort of general tendency people have to underestimate others in terms of readiness to take action to address collective problems” said Kull, a political psychologist who leads the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. “It makes people feel good to think that they are more advanced than others, socially and intellectually. That they can better see the need for addressing long-term problems.”

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While this poll focused on average citizens (see the full results methodology [PDF]), previous polls found that political leaders consistently underestimate the support of their citizens for addressing complex, long-term problems such as climate change. The same group’s 2004 Hall of Mirrors study [PDF] found that 71 percent of the public favored ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. However, only 38 percents of U.S. leaders (senior congressional staffers, Bush administration officials, and leaders in business, labor, and media) estimated that a majority of the public would support it. Only 28 percent of leaders estimated that it would be a large majority.

Leaders may be making the same miscalculation about this year’s climate and energy debate, Kull said. He took issue with polls that ask participants to rank a series of issues from most to least important, such as a Pew Research Center project in January.

“Americans consistently say that more should be done [on climate change],” he said. “At the same time if you give them a list of priorities [to rank] climate tends not to be one that they rank as one of the most important.”

Prioritization polls don’t account for the fact that Americans may want significant action on a lot of issues, he said.


China’s strong interest in government climate action is consistent with the findings of other research, said Kull, who has conducted focus-group polling in the country. Even when told by their government that climate change is the responsibility of industrialized nations, Chinese tend to support national action, he said.

“They generally have a kind of can-do attitude,” he said. “They also perceive that their economy is growing so much that they feel like they can afford the costs related to addressing climate change.”

Mexico’s position as the most supportive of government action surprised Kull, and he said he didn’t have a ready interpretation for it.

German participants had the strongest perception that their government was doing a lot on climate. Only 46 percent of Germans wanted their government to do more. Respondents from two other leading emitters–India and Russia–fell in the middle on support for government action.

Polls were conducted by different research centers in each country, and Kull cautioned against making too much of country-to-country comparisons. “We can’t exactly say that everybody relates to this 0-10 scale in the same way,” he said.

The survey relied on respondents’ current knowledge of the issue–each of the three questions used the phrase “addressing climate change” without explaining the threats of climate change or the benefits of stopping it. The survey was conducted from April to early July and had a margin of error of 3 to 4 percentage points.