LONDON - As governments prepare to meet in Mexico for the Cancun climate summit, a new global poll reveals that concern about climate change has fallen sharply across OECD countries in the past year, but that citizens in some major developing nations have become more concerned about the issue.

The 26-country poll, conducted by GlobeScan, asked a total of 13,389 people to rate the seriousness of a range of environmental problems including climate change.

Results from the 14 countries where GlobeScan has tracked opinion regularly since 1998 reveal that concern has fallen away particularly sharply on climate change. The proportion of people rating climate change as a “very serious” problem fell from 61 percent to 53 percent this year, after many years of increasing concern.

While concern about climate change fell in many industrialised nations including the UK (down from 59 percent to 43 percent “very serious”), the USA (down from 45 percent to 41 percent), and Germany (down from 61 percent to 47 percent), the findings also show that concern has risen in the last year in two major emerging economies: India (up from 45 percent to 53 percent) and Brazil (up from 86 percent to 92 percent).

Other findings from the poll show that the proportion of people across tracking countries who believe that “the dangers of climate change are exaggerated” has risen from 42 percent in 2008 to 48 percent this year:

GlobeScan Senior Vice-President Chris Coulter commented: “We are witnessing a North-South divide around climate change where concern is stable or growing in emerging economies while concern has declined in Europe and North America. The combined effects of economic recession, the confusing results from last year’s Copenhagen climate conference, and the controversy surrounding climate science seem to have shaken the belief of people in industrialized countries that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed, and makes it even less likely that governments will feel the pressure to reach a strong agreement in Cancun. We may, however, see stronger than expected leadership from key developing countries in response to the significant levels of concern expressed by their populations.”

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Genetic modification of food crops is an issue on which public concern has increased significantly in a number of countries over the last few years. Most notably, despite the wide prevalence of GM foods available for sale in the US, this is the market where public concern about genetic modification has increased most sharply—the proportion rating GM crops as a very serious issue now stands at 41 per cent, up 16 points since 2003. Despite the high media profile in the UK and refusal by many major food retailers to stock GM foods, concern there is lower. It is highest in Mexico, where nearly two-thirds consider the issue to be serious.

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Public concern about climate change has been on the up since the late 1990s. Fifteen years ago, those who saw it as a very serious environmental issue were significantly outnumbered by those who worried about more tangible and immediate environmental concerns—water pollution and air pollution among them—but by 2009 climate concern had substantially caught up with other environmental worries. Contrary to what many expected, climate concern continued to rise as recession hit, but the last year has seen a sharp fall in concern, according to the most recent GlobeScan tracking across 14 countries. The widely-perceived failure of the Copenhagen summit and the storm around the “Climategate” emails are likely to have been instrumental.

But the picture is more complex than it first appears. Concern has fallen sharply in the developed West, but is stable or rising in the BRICs. In some countries, like the USA, even if climate concern is down, worries about other environmental issues we tested are on the rise. Those who ascribe climate change to natural causes are up—but so are the numbers who blame it on human activity. All this suggests public opinion remains volatile—and may well swing again in response to the next Hurricane Katrina, tsunami or similar catastrophe, when fingers will again be pointed at the impact of the changing climate.

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GlobeScan’s tracking survey reveals that public concern about climate change has been volatile since the 2009 Copenhagen summit’s failure to agree to a global deal to reduce carbon emissions—but concern continues to be higher in developing than in developed countries.

This reflects our 2010 Greendex survey of 17 countries, where British, Swedish, German, and American respondents showed the lowest levels of agreement with the proposition “global warming will worsen my way of life within my own lifetime,” while Brazilian, Indian, and Chinese respondents showed high levels of agreement. This may reflect the greater potential for catastrophic events such as natural disasters to impact people’s lives in developing nations.

This decline in concern about climate change may result from increasing feelings of urgency about other social and economic issues overshadowing long-term concerns about the environment. In 2011, corruption, extreme poverty, the rising cost of food and energy, and terrorism emerge as greater preoccupations on a global level than climate change.

Particular factors that are likely to be behind the decline in the perceived seriousness of climate change in developed countries between 2000 and 2003—and again in 2010—are the impact of the September 11 attacks, the subsequent conflicts in the Middle East, and the global economic downturn. The widely publicized “Climategate” controversy is also likely to have been a factor.

France, Japan, and the USA have seen continuing decreases in the perceived seriousness of climate change over the past three years. Under the influence of the ongoing economic slowdown—and of the Fukushima disaster—climate change has lost attention in some major economies, and is slow to regain it.

Over the past year, however, climate change has recovered its position as an issue of serious concern in some developed and developing countries, particularly in Ecuador, Peru, Turkey, and Russia.

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As the Durban UN summit struggles to reach an agreement that will keep climate change within acceptable limits over the next decades, GlobeScan tracking reveals that the public in much of the world is losing faith that there will be a technological solution to the problems posed by a changing climate.

The optimism that developing nations, in particular, felt that the same technological innovation that was helping to drive strong economic growth in their countries would also solve climate change with minimal changes to human behavior, appears to have waned significantly, with major falls in confidence in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, and Pakistan.

These falls are mirrored in developed economies such as the UK, USA, and Spain, which were already more pessimistic that painful lifestyle adjustments could be averted in tackling climate change. If well-founded, this pessimism only underlines how critical it is that governments achieve a strong emissions-reduction agreement in Durban.

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The consequences of high oil prices–still around $100 a barrel–are making themselves felt again. Exxon has announced increased profits, and prices at the fuel pump are at near-record levels.

So the fact that fears of further price increases are at the top of consumers’ concerns about energy, according to GlobeScan's world public attitudes tracking, should not come as a surprise. Nearly one in four citizens (23%) across nine countries polled since 1998 now cites rising prices as their primary energy-related concern.

The latest data also reveals the impact of last year's incident at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. Concern about the risks posed by nuclear power had fallen away significantly the last time this question was fielded in 2008, as many governments contemplated ramping up their nuclear programs in response to increasing concerns over energy security and supply. But the Fukushima accident has clearly made many think again, and worries about the risks of nuclear power are now mentioned as the primary energy-related concern by nearly as many (21%) as possible price increases.

However, other recent GlobeScan findings suggest that some countries are bucking the trend. While support for building new nuclear power stations has fallen in many countries, it has remained stable in the USA, and has risen in the UK. With support for nuclear expansion also high in China and Pakistan, it is too soon to say that public opinion has swung decisively against nuclear power.

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The potency of water as a political issue in the world's major emerging economies was underlined again this week when it was reported that water levels had plunged in the Siang river in India's north-east. Allegations were levelled that China—where water stress is also a major concern—had diverted much of the water on the Chinese side of the border, preventing it reaching farmers and residents who depend upon on it in the Indian state of Assam.

This controversy is not surprising, given the central importance that Indian citizens attach to water as an issue, according to Globescan’s global attitudes tracking. Our most recent data reveal that Indians consider fresh water shortages to be the most serious of a range of environmental problems, with nearly seven in ten (68%) rating them as “very serious”—up nearly ten percentage points since 2008. Furthermore, water pollution was cited this year as the second most serious environmental problem, with 59% rating it “very serious,” well ahead of problems like climate change (47%).

With the Indian economy registering its seventh consecutive quarter of slow growth, water insecurity, already an important concern, is likely to become increasingly central to the politics of this huge emerging economy.

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Against the backdrop of one the world’s most severe typhoons and landmark levels of atmospheric CO2, the 19th Conference of the Parties has kicked off this week in Warsaw, Poland. COP19, intended to lay down the groundwork ahead of a new global climate change agreement in Paris in 2015, needs significant progress by politicians, business leaders, opinion formers and scientists if they are to reach consensus.

The general population is unlikely to hear much about the conference via mainstream media and the perspectives of the public can seem lost in the midst of these political, scientific and economic discussions. So let’s bring them back into the debate – what do the global public think about climate change in 2013?

GlobeScan’s Radar 2013, conducted amongst 27,000 individuals across 27 countries, asks the global public its opinion on the issues facing our world today. These are not climate change experts but citizens, voters, consumers, employees and, indeed, polluters.

Our evidence shows that the global public is very much in favor of action on climate change. A solid majority of 55% of the public across 24 countries consider it necessary to take major steps to address climate change. A further 31% told us that they believe it is necessary to take some steps. A minority of 8% believe that it is not necessary to take any steps to address climate change. The sample includes individuals from Poland, the coal-powered host of this year’s conference, and China and the US, whose conflicting perspectives are notorious for putting the brakes on global climate agreements.

High profile weather emergencies such as Hurricane Sandy last year and the ongoing tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan continue to keep the changing climate in the media spotlight. Such attention makes the topic of climate change more tangible in the hearts and minds of the global public. As the latest BSR/GlobeScan State of Sustainable Business Survey shows, businesses the world over have understood the demand for action and are busy integrating more sustainable business practices. We now need our global leaders to translate this proven appetite into political action.

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Image courtesy of Flickr/Wonderlane

As a Californian GlobeScanner, I have first-hand experience of our state’s concern about access to fresh water. My water district in Marin County is likely just days away from implementing mandatory water rationing, as it and other water districts throughout the state struggle to deal with a protracted and severe drought. California just experienced not only the driest year on record, but also the warmest winter on record, which has seriously affected the extent of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, one of our main supplies of water.

It is not surprising, then, to find that when asked about fresh water in GlobeScan’s most recent Radar research, a majority of respondents from the Western US view shortages as a “very serious” issue (54%).

But what about the rest of the country? Are people east of us paying attention to California’s severe drought and also viewing the issue as very serious? The answer is... not really. When we remove the respondents from the Western US from the equation, only 30% of respondents view shortages of fresh water as a “very serious” issue, leading to the lowest level of concern (just 35% view it as “very serious” nationally) we have seen for the US since GlobeScan started measuring this issue in 2003 (see chart below).

Why the historically low figure? Especially when the US drought monitor still shows large areas of the US – beyond California – under abnormally dry conditions or experiencing drought.

Well, one answer might just stem from when we asked respondents the question. For the 2014 research, the fieldwork was conducted between January 10 and February 17. This was a time when the US (and my Canadian colleagues!) was suffering under the polar vortex - an event that was preceded in many areas by heavy rain, and left large swathes of the US under deep snow. Asked under these conditions about how serious the shortage of fresh water is, it perhaps is not surprising that people viewed the issue as less serious.

However, if we flash back 12 months, when people were still experiencing significant or severe drought conditions that had blighted much of the US  throughout 2012, we saw high levels of concern about shortages of fresh water in all regions (54% nationally). Is the old saying literally true, do we only ever miss the water when the well runs dry?

This volatility in concern is important for all organizations for whom the use of fresh water is a material issue. For government and policy-makers, it presents a challenge in encouraging residents to voluntarily conserve water when drought conditions are not apparent. And for businesses, who are often substantial individual users of fresh water, it signifies a renewed need for the responsible use of water. As public concern about the shortages of fresh water ebb and flow, businesses must remain vigilant, lest they risk ire of a parched public.

Reservoir image courtesy of Flickr/Wonderlane
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How did we lose the room? This is the question facing the sustainability community as GlobeScan’s latest Radar data shows a decline in how serious the global public considers environmental issues to be. With ample scientific evidence to the contrary (see the latest IPCC report), how do we explain the decreasing public concern in environmental issues? And, on World Environment Day 2014, what does this mean for organisations trying to make headway on sustainability?

GlobeScan’s recent Radar public opinion survey asked people across 22 countries about the seriousness of a number of environmental issues including water pollution, resource depletion, air pollution, water shortages, biodiversity and climate change. We created the GlobeScan Environmental Perception Index to track views of these issues in the aggregate (see chart above). While there has been significant volatility in public perception across the 10 countries tracked, the proportion of respondents in 2014 citing these environmental issues as “very serious” is at its lowest level since we began asking this question in 1998.

One possible explanation for the decline in environmental concern is that many of the issues remain intangible or out of sight for the general public. For many people, tangible consequences have still yet to materialize. Climate change and depletion of natural resources are long term issues that often don’t affect people on a day-to-day basis. This short sightedness in turn produces a tendency for people to inappropriately discount the effect of their current behavior on future outcomes, a cognitive bias coined by behavioural economists as “future discounting”. In a nutshell, negative discussion about looming environmental issues has turned off the public.

It is important to note that where problems are more visible and more real to people, such as increasing air pollution in China, we do see pockets of rising concern (from 50% “very serious” in 2013, to 57% in 2014).

The results also show that there was a relative spike in overall concern in 2013. While high profile events such as Hurricane Sandy and high profile attention by the likes of Barack Obama could go some way to explaining a brief peak, it also highlights how variable public opinion on these topics is.

So what does this declining and fluctuating concern mean for business and organisations trying to navigate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world?

The challenge for business, particularly companies seeking recognised leadership, is to better engage the public around sustainability and make it both relevant and desirable. Companies gaining traction include Coca Cola with its Me, We, World strategy, Unilever’s Project Sunlight, with over 90 million acts of sunlight pledged so far, and Disney’s Be Inspired, making sustainability personal. Natura taps into concern in Brazil around natural resource depletion (87% consider it “very serious” in 2014) with its Ekos range using traditional, natural ingredients and working with local communities to make this both relevant and desirable for its audience. And note Ford and Cadillac, which took contrasting approaches to advertising alternative fuel vehicles, targeting two very different sets of consumers in the process. All of these appeal to an important new consumer segment, the Aspirationals, and nowhere in their discourse is negative messaging about environmental problems.

If sustainability leaders want to regain the room, and re-engage the public in environmental issues, then we need to sell sustainable solutions as relevant, positive and desirable. Doom and gloom has only taken us so far; we need to try a more optimistic and empowering approach.

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