People overwhelmingly believe in the emergency, world’s largest poll on climate change finds

Climate protests take place in Zurich, 4 September, 2020. (Keystone/Alexandra Wey)

Around 64 per cent of respondents to a survey on 1.2 million people from 50 different countries expressed support for policies to tackle climate change.

The People's Climate Vote, conducted by the UN Development Programme and Oxford University, asked 1.2 million people from 50 different countries if they thought climate change was an emergency and how it should be dealt with.

The poll has been released as world leaders have gathered this week for the Climate Adaptation Summit and Davos Agenda Week to address how they will rebuild the world’s economy and tackle the climate and health crises.

“Today is about action. We are bringing together leaders from across the room, from government, from business from cities, academia, NGOs, as well as our partners. And we have an outstanding opportunity today to discuss how we can recover better, how we can recover stronger and recover together from this crisis,” former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in opening remarks at the Climate Adaptation Summit. 

As nations continue to roll out stimulus recovery packages and promises to move towards a green and sustainable future continue to pile up, popular support will be a determining factor for these policies to be turned into actions. 

“Leaders are faced with some unprecedented decisions that they have to make,” said Cassie Lynn, climate adviser for the UNDP, during the launch of the report on Tuesday. “How they respond to the climate crisis, how they respond to the Covid crisis is going to chart an entirely new pathway.”

“What we wanted to do with the People's Climate Vote is to bring people's voices to that decision making,” she added.

Young people below the age of 18 were the most supportive, with 70 per cent answering positively, while only 58 per cent of respondents over the age of 60 said they believed in the climate emergency.

People in small island developing countries, who are among the most afflicted by the consequences of global warming, were also the first to recognise the climate emergency (74 per cent), followed by high income countries (72 per cent).

“What this really tells us is that people believe that there is a climate emergency, no matter where they are from, no matter what age they are, no matter what their gender is,” Lynn explained.

With fake news about climate change becoming widespread on the internet and climate change deniers being emboldened for the past four years by former US president Donald Trump, this poll suggests that the reality of people’s opinion is more nuanced.

Even the people who replied that they did not believe in the climate emergency, picked an average of six policies to address global warming, Lynn said:

“This tells us that people are thinking about how they want to envision their future. They are thinking about what their governments need to do to improve society and improve lives. Even if it might not be tagged with climate change, there is a real appetite to make some of these changes.”

The survey used an unconventional means of reaching out to potential respondents. It questioned millions of video game players across the globe through their phones between October and December 2020. When they were playing Words with Friends, Angry Birds or any other game on their gaming apps, the survey would appear as an ad, and users could decide to participate or not.

“The idea is that we would be able to tap into audiences that normally aren't engaged in the climate crisis,” she explained.

Respondents were asked to choose from a number of policy measures across six areas: energy, economy, transportation, farms and food, protecting people, and nature.

The most popular policies with respondents were conserving forests and land, more solar, wind and renewable energy, adopting climate-friendly farming techniques and more investment in green businesses and jobs.

Among the least popular policies were plants-based diets and affordable insurance, with only one third of respondents backing them.

The survey also found that people call for action in areas that affect their daily life. Nine out of ten of the most urbanised countries backed more use of electric cars and buses, or bicycles. For island countries, protecting oceans was a priority. Nations with high emissions from deforestation and land-use showed strong support for conserving forests and land.

“People are living this climate crisis, and they want to live the solutions,” Lynn said.

Level of education influenced how participants answered. According to the findings, people who had attended university were more likely to believe in the climate emergency, both in low-income countries like Democratic Republic of the Congo (82 per cent), and in wealthy countries like France (87 per cent) or Japan (82 per cent).

Data from the survey will be shared with governments with the hope that it will help inform their climate plans.

“We [UNDP] are the largest supporters of countries on their nationally determined contributions in the world. And we are working with countries to use the results of the People's Climate Vote to help encourage world leaders to help bring this into these policy making decisions, so that people around the world do have a voice on how their future is created.”

The UN body is planning to expand the poll to include other countries in the future, particularly rural areas with little to no WIFI connection which prove difficult to reach, Lynn said.