New research by Provost Risa Palm calls into question the applicability of U.S. predictors in a worldwide context

Posted On September 11, 2018 by Layla Bellows
Categories Headlines

When it comes to predicting whether someone believes anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem, many of us may think we only need to ask one question: What is your political orientation? But as it turns out, the tie between political outlook and climate change only exists in the U.S. and a handful of other Western countries.

Newly published research by Dr. Risa Palm, GSU’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, along with the Andrew Young School’s Gregory B. Lewis and Bo Feng of IMPAQ International, examines global attitudes about climate change. Titled “Cross-national variation in determinants of climate change concern” and published by Environmental Politics earlier this month, the analysis generally calls into question many prevailing stereotypes about who does or doesn’t perceive climate change as a serious problem.

“My long-term interest has been how people understand and react to the environment,” Palm says. In the past she has looked at earthquake hazards, including their impacts in real estate, mortgage financing and appraising, which led to a cross-national study contrasting attitudes and behavior in California and Japan. “In my earthquake research, I came to the firm conclusion that it is easier to write about our findings in the United States as if they fit all people everywhere but that this is not a particularly good way to understand behavior.”

To capture perceptions outside the U.S., Palm, Lewis, and Feng turned to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes Survey, which includes the question, “In your view, is global climate change a very serious problem, somewhat serious, not too serious or not a problem?” They analyzed responses according to dimensions that have been shown by past research to have a relationship with people’s perceptions about climate change: gender, education, age, family income, religiosity, and political orientation. The authors then compared results across countries and continents. In the U.S., we tend to think of women, those who are more educated, young adults and wealthier groups as more concerned with climate change, and those who are more religious and/or politically conservative as less concerned. Worldwide, however, the team found that these antecedents are poor predictors of concern about climate change.

Rather, the most consistent predictor proved to be a dimension called “Commitment to democratic principles.” This measure of political orientation asks survey respondents to rate the importance of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, free elections, equal rights for women, and a censorship-free internet in their country on a scale of 1 (not important) to 4 (very important). This was the strongest predictor of climate change in 17 out of 36 Pew surveyed, and responses of “very important” rather than “somewhat important” increased the probability of believing climate change is a serious problem.

“The most surprising finding was the new variable, ‘democratic principles,’ and its strength internationally,” Palm says. “We aren’t quite sure what it means, and it definitely needs more examination. I was also surprised that some of the population characteristics so closely related to climate change concern in the United States (such as women and religiosity) had such varying relationships internationally.”

Next, Palm is trying to identify factors that can influence opinion on climate change. “My colleague and I are looking at message format, style, content, and source,” she says. “We plan to present our findings at the April AAG meeting.”