Global Warming Worries Wealthy, Polluting Nations Least

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The wealthier a country is and the more greenhouse gases it spews into the atmosphere, the less worried its citizens are about the effects of global warming. Residents of the low-lying Netherlands, ironically, are the least worried of all. The findings are the result of a study that started when Hanno Sandvik, a biology postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, came across on online survey conducted by ACNielsen that polled people in 46 countries asking about their attitudes toward global warming. Sandvik had been "a little depressed" about what he perceived as the poor state of understanding of climate change and the lack of public concern over its effects in Norway, he said. When he saw the survey results, his suspicions were confirmed: Norway was in the top 10 of the least concerned countries. More surprisingly, The Netherlands, which stands to be one of the first nations to feel the effects of climate change through sea level rise, topped the list. The flood-prone country with a lot of coastline was followed by Russia and the United States (in a tie), with Latvia, Estonia, Denmark, Belgium, New Zealand, and Finland rounding out the top 10. Europe vs. U.S. While the majority of the respondents from these countries said they were concerned about the effects of global warming, a substantial minority said they weren't. For example, while only about 2 percent of respondents from France said they weren't worried about climate change, around 20 percent of U.S. respondents said the same, Sandvik said. "European countries as a whole are much more concerned than the United States," he said. The data on attitudes toward global warming came from an online survey, which suggests that the data were not generated by a random sample. For instance, only respondents with Internet access could respond. Only random samples generate results that accurately represent a population's attributes. Two recent national surveys conducted by Yale University have found, however, that nearly three-quarters of Americans are willing to pay more taxes to support local mitigation efforts. A more comprehensive Gallup poll of 150 countries will come out in the next few months, and some questions will address attitudes toward climate change in these nations. GDP and greenhouse gases Sandvik was curious as to what might be shaping these attitudes at the national level, especially in countries where there was ample information on global warming, so he looked to see if there was any correlation between either a country's gross domestic product or its per capita greenhouse gas emissions and the level of concern of its citizens. When he ran the numbers, he found: Countries with higher GDPs and more greenhouse gas emissions tended to have a larger segment of their population that was less worried about global warming. The findings will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Climatic Change. While Sandvik is the first to note that he isn't a psychologist, he suspects that some psychological reasons could be behind the lack of concern. People in wealthy, highly polluting nations may feel guilty about their contribution to the problem and subconsciously decide to simply ignore the issue. "The more responsible you feel for a problem," the more likely you are to ignore it, Sandvik told LiveScience. There could also be an unwillingness on the part of the rich to sacrifice some of their wealth to solve the problem. "If you take global warming to heart, you understand that you have to sacrifice something," Sandvik said. "And the richer you are, the less willing you are to sacrifice." From a more biological perspective, Sandvik thinks that we simply aren't adapted to fear certain things. If a dog is growling menacingly at us, we know to be scared, but, "we can't cope with invisible or abstract danger," he said. Sandvik did notice a shift in Norwegian concern over global warming after the very mild winter of 2007. When people saw that the lack of snow that winter affected their traditional skiing trips, it brought global warming home to them, he said.

Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.