Concern about climate change among people in China – the world’s biggest carbon polluter – has plummeted in the past five years, according to new research. The Chinese were the least concerned among 40 nations surveyed.
Only 18% of Chinese citizens are seriously concerned about the issue, a drop of 23 points since 2010, the US Pew Research Center report published on Thursday shows.
Nevertheless more than two-thirds of Chinese people support a global deal on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the research states.
China ranked as the country where citizens were least concerned about the issue among 40 nations participating in the study.
On average, 54% of the 45,000 people who participated globally expressed serious concern.
Bruce Stokes, the co-author of the report, said there was “frankly, no explanation” for the drop, but suggested as a possible reason that “there must not be as much public discussion about climate change in China as there are in other parts of the world”.
In 2010, China overtook the US to become both the biggest producer and biggest consumer of energy in the world. Its government has been applauded by some for its commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60-65% from 2005 levels and to see its emissions peak by 2030.
Despite their lack of concern about climate change, when asked which domestic issues they found most problematic, Chinese participants consistently named air pollution near the top. Air pollution is thought to cause thousands of deaths every day in the country, with coal accounting for two-thirds of China’s energy consumption.
Despite the apparent absence of anxiety in China, 71% of people interviewed there gave their support to their government curbing greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international agreement due to be renegotiated at a crunch UN conference in Paris in December where leaders from more than 190 countries will meet.
The study revealed marked support for an agreement in almost all of the countries surveyed – Pakistan was the sole exception – even in those countries where there was little anxiety about the issue.
“The public are crying out for action,” said Stokes.
“Any public policy issue where you get that many people saying this is a concern to us it seems to me it is a wake-up call to governments. This is an issue that negotiators and governments have got to address,” he said.
But in the US, where Barack Obama introduced landmark reforms in August, implementation of public policy would be hampered by stark political divisions, said Stokes.
While 45% of Americans described climate change as a very serious issue, only 20% of Republicans agreed, compared with 68% of Democrats.
American Catholics are more likely to be concerned than Protestants, with the findings published as another study suggests that they have been energised on the issue by Pope Francis’s call to action in his landmark encyclical in June and his visit to the US and address to Congress three months later.
Of those interviewed in the survey by the Yale project on Climate Change Communication, 35% of Catholics and 17% of Americans said their views on global warming had been influenced by the pontiff’s interventions.
Australia, Canada, Germany and the UK are experiencing similar divisions, suggests the report by the Pew Research Center.
In Australia, where emission reduction targets are lower than some comparable developing countries, 31% of rightwing Liberal party supporters expressed serious concern, compared to 65% of leftwing Labour voters.
Climate change is seen as a priority in Latin America, where 76% see it as a serious concern. The highest level of concern (86%) was in Brazil, home to one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks in the Amazonian forest as well as the oil giant Petrobras.
Drought was consistently cited as the most worrying consequence of climate change compared with the other options given: rising sea levels, hot weather patterns and severe weather events such as flooding or intense storms.