Do the global poor care about climate change? I was struck by that question at the National Peace Symposium that I attended and wrote about last month.

The Caliph of the Ahmadyya Muslim Community spoke about how we need world leaders to prioritize helping the poor out of poverty in the same urgent manner as acting on climate change. He said that the world’s poorest do not worry about the latest greenhouse gas figures because they’re too busy worrying about whether they can feed their children today.

This comment hit me hard because it simultaneously rang true yet also seemed to contradict what I know about climate change hurting the poor most.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that people won’t care about longer term problems or global problems when they are focused on basic survival today.

But people prioritize, and all problems are relative.

Even if the global poor know climate change is affecting their community in a serious way, they probably won’t have it top of mind if they are struggling to feed their children and their only water source is contaminated and miles away, or their family are sick and they can’t afford healthcare. These urgent problems are naturally going to take precedence. And I think it’s important for Western environmentalists like myself to understand that.

So, do the global poor care about climate change?

I was very curious, so I decided to dig into some research. I found four surveys comparing attitudes to climate change across countries. Shall we dive in?

The research: what the global poor thinks of climate change

I’m going to summarize each of the four studies I looked at before going on to my own analysis and conclusion. I encourage you to read these studies yourself if you’re interested, as they are all packed with fascinating detail that I don’t have time to go into here.

1. UN survey 2014

  • Huge survey asked citizens to rank global issues by importance
  • Covered a good range of countries from rich to middle income to poor
  • You can see the data here and a good analysis by Vox here
  • People in rich countries rank climate change #9 on the list
  • Middle income countries rank climate change #14 on the list
  • Poorest countries rank climate change last on the list
  • Global average placed education first and climate action last

2. YouGov survey 2015

  • Smaller survey of citizens asked to rank global issues in importance
  • Covered 17 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East plus the US and Australia
  • None of the poorest countries were included – none from Latin America or Africa
  • You can see the data here, with a really cool interactive datavis
  • Developing countries China, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia were included
  • China and Thailand among the most concerned about climate change
  • Indonesia and Malaysia among the least
  • Global average places climate action third behind poverty and terrorism (which was the top by miles – likely influenced by the timing of the survey just after the December 2015 attack in Paris, but note climate has gone from last to third place compared to the UN survey)
  • UK and US among the least concerned about climate change

3. Pew Research Centre survey 2015

  • Large survey covering a good spread of 40 countries
  • Asked citizens a number of questions about their views on climate change
  • Majorities in every country said it is a serious problem, but wide variation between countries
  • Citizens in Latin America and Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, are most concerned about climate impacts
  • Citizens in higher emissions countries are less concerned
  • You can see the data here

4. Gallup survey 2007-08

  • Using older data but huge sample size covering over 119 countries
  • Claims to be biggest pubic survey on climate change to date, representing 90% of the world population
  • Asked citizens how much they know about climate change and if they know of it, how much of a threat is it to them and their family
  • Over a third of world’s adults do not know about climate change at all
  • This figure was as high as two thirds in many developing countries
  • Education level was biggest determiner of climate awareness
  • When people in poor countries are aware of climate change they are very concerned about it
  • Perception of climate risk very high in South America and many African and Asian countries
  • You can see the study in Nature journal here and a good analysis on Carbon Brief here

Analysis: What is the data telling us?

So, as you can see these four surveys show mixed results. The UN survey is very clearly aligned with the Caliph’s comment that people in the poorer countries are not concerned about climate change as they have more urgent problems to worry about.

The YouGov survey shows a much more mixed picture. But it is also the least relevant for our question because it only asks people from 17 countries, only four of which are developing countries (that’s if you count China) and none of the world’s poorest countries are included. So while fascinating in other ways, let’s set that one aside for now.

The Pew survey appears to show the opposite of the UN one: people in the poorest countries are actually the most concerned about climate change. Meanwhile, people in the countries that have the highest emissions (i.e. richer ones) are not as concerned.

Young woman gathers water from Mwamanongu Village water source, Tanzania. Image credit: Bob Metcalf / Wikimedia Commons (CC0)

The Gallup survey has two big points relevant for our question. On the one hand a high proportion of people in the poorest countries do not even know what climate change is. Clearly you can’t worry about something you don’t know exists. (Although I bet they do worry about the impacts of climate change likes floods, droughts, storms etc). But when they are aware of climate change, they tend to be very concerned about it.

The studies with the most clear-cut results are the UN one and the Pew one – which suggest opposite conclusions. Why is this? It’s possible that the Pew one, timed very close to the climate summit where the Paris Agreement was signed, could have picked up on rising awareness and excitement around that. But to be honest I doubt that the citizens of the South American and sub-Saharan African nations were so engaged in that process as to shift the results so dramatically.

What I think is much more relevant is the nature of the studies and how people think about risk.

The UN one, that said the global poor are least concerned about climate change, asked people to rank a list of global issues from most to least important. While the Pew one, that said the global poor are most concerned about climate change, asked people about their views on climate change in isolation. The Gallup survey, which said when the global poor know about climate change they are very concerned about it, was similar to the Pew study – i.e. it asked about climate in isolation.

So, my conclusion from this is that the global poor are very concerned about climate change, more so than we are, but they don’t prioritize it because they are even more concerned about other problems they face. Such as feeding their children, like the Caliph says.

This makes sense intuitively and is backed by the data. So, what does this mean for global climate action, poverty alleviation and development?

What this really means

Looking into this has made me even more convinced that tackling global poverty has to be done in tandem with tackling climate change. They are intricately connected. I think it’s important that we remember climate change is a historical injustice: the poorest countries suffer the worst impacts yet have done least to cause it and have the least capacity to address it.

Yet it is vital that they do address it. Vital for them, as they face the most serious risks, and vital for all of us as we simply can’t afford for poor countries to start polluting as much as we have. That may well be unfair but it’s tough – nature doesn’t care what is fair between humans. But we do, or should, care about fairness and justice, so it is the responsibility of the richer nations to help the poorer ones develop in a sustainable way, leapfrogging over the polluting stage of development to a clean economy.

I also think it is totally unreasonable for us to expect the poorest countries to reduce their consumption of energy and resources. Yes, efficiency gains should always be made where possible, but the reality is they are consuming way too little to meet their basic needs while we are consuming way too much.

Luckily, there are many forms of climate action that the poorest countries can take that both improve their people’s lives today while also helping to fight climate change. These include conserving forests and wetlands, sustainable forestry, agroforestry, composting, offgrid renewables and others. Along with climate adaptation (such as flood defences, drought-resistant crops etc) these forms of mitigation are what they should be focusing on, because they can be done while improving livelihoods.

I’m excited to delve into each of these topics on this blog at some point. For now, please share this post and subscribe to catch the next ones. And be thoughtful about global inequality and poverty when discussing climate change solutions.

To be effective, the climate movement needs to be inclusive and intersectional.

Header photo: Children going to gather water from river, Lao PDR. Image credit: Asian Development Bank / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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