By Alan Crawford
Wildfires in California and Siberia. Floods wiping out grain harvests in Argentina. Droughts forcing water restrictions in Cape Town and affecting shipping on Germany’s Rhine River.
Climate change is global in nature, and is creeping higher in surveys of voter concerns. In some countries it’s at or near the top, but it’s not regarded with the same urgency the world over. A Bloomberg collation of polls reveals some glaring disparities in the way the emerging crisis is viewed against other worries like jobs and security.
That presents a dilemma for political leaders. On the one hand, many face pressure to burnish their environmental credentials as climate action becomes a priority for voters and companies alike. On the other, they can be accused by political opponents of focusing on a distant threat at the expense of more immediate existential concerns like healthcare or supporting economic growth. The divide is not simply financial, but often between urban and rural voters, making the task for politicians all the more complex.
In many countries, climate and the environment has become a political battlefield on which elections are increasingly being fought. European Union elections in May saw an unexpected surge in support for green parties. Yet Australia’s ballot the same month saw the pro-environment, coal industry-skeptic Labor Party loses rural votes—and the election—even as it picked up support in major cities. Canada’s fall vote is shaping up to be dominated by carbon taxes levied on fossil fuels.
As Group of 20 leaders prepare to meet in Japan this week, the risk is that existing ideological differences over climate change are compounded by differing voter expectations of action, putting any chance of consensus further out of reach.
Consider the G-20 host. Japanese polls suggest that voter perceptions of the importance of addressing climate change have fallen in recent years, showing the issue is not just one of rich world versus poor world. The picture is further clouded by signs of concern when voters are specifically asked: A March survey by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs found the topics the public most wanted to be discussed at the G-20 were ocean plastic (49.3%), followed by climate change (48.1%). The implication may be that electorates simply don’t see individual governments as able to tackle a global matter like climate, and look to the G-20 for action.
Here are the main findings by global region.
An extended dry spell across northern Europe last summer brought record temperatures from the U.K. to Finland and this year already threatens a repeat. The European Drought Observatory reported as of September 2018 that crops were damaged and the livestock sector was under pressure, while logistics suffered “significant disruptions” and rising transportation costs due to the impact on waterways.
► EU27: A Eurobarometer survey of the European Union’s 27 countries—minus the U.K.—this spring found that “combating climate change and protecting the environment” was cited as a concern by 43% of respondents, up from 35% a year ago, and into the No. 4 slot on a list behind the economy and growth (50%), youth unemployment (49%) and immigration (44%). Climate change was the main topic in seven countries (Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany), up from five EU states six months previously.
► U.K.: In Brexit-dominated Britain, the environment was tied with the economy for fourth most important issue in a YouGov poll of voters at the end of April. That’s up from ninth a year ago. The top three issues were Brexit, health and crime.
► Russia: Dozens were killed in Siberian wildfires in April and May that melted permafrost across huge areas of northern Russia, but none of it resonated much with voters in the main population centers. “Ecology and the environment” placed 15th on a list of voter concerns in a May 19 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation, down from shared 11th place in January. The top concerns were utility bills, inflation and wages. That said, awareness of the environment more generally—usually taken to mean air and water pollution in Russia—is growing, albeit slowly, with 10% of respondents citing it as a major concern, up from 6% in 2016.
► Norway: One of the world’s largest oil and gas producers, Norway basks in a relatively pristine environment and leads the world in electric vehicles per inhabitant. But in political terms, caring for the environment comes relatively low on the scale of voter concerns, with just 17% citing it as a top issue, below education (28%), health (26%), care of the elderly (22%) and social differences (18%). In the capital, Oslo, however, voters cite the environment as second only to education, 29% to 30%.
► U.S.: Donald Trump has made help for the coal industry and cutting back on environmental protections a cornerstone of his presidency, and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords. Yet surveys consistently show many Americas are worried about climate change: a Quinnipiac University poll in December 2018 found 69% of respondents were somewhat or very concerned by climate change. Break it down by political affiliation, however, and the gulf becomes clear: among Democrats, the number was 92%, while for Republicans it was 36%. The U.S. has dealt with a range of recent natural disasters, including widespread flooding in the Midwest and South on top of last year’s devastating wildfires in California. There have been 1,171 eyewitness tornado reports in 2019 so far, well above normal, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. The Quinnipiac poll found 90% of Democrats attribute those kind of extreme weather events to climate change; just 24% of Republicans shared that view.
► Canada: Climate change is set to be a central issue in the fall election, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax helping determine whether he wins a second term. Consequently, climate change ranks “relatively high” on a poll of voter concerns, according to Abacus Data, which found 74% said it was a very big or moderately big problem in November. That was still behind issues including drug addiction, wages and the gap between rich and poor. The top concern was affordability of housing. This month, unseasonal early wildfires in the oil-producing state of Alberta forced evacuations and cuts in oil output.
► Argentina: Voter priorities focus on consumer price increases, high taxation, corruption and unemployment, according to a May poll by Sao Paulo-based Atlas Politico. Climate didn’t feature. Argentine farmers have been some of the first to feel the effects of climate change, with floods wiping out grains as rainfall in the Pampas exceeded the 50-year average in five of the past six years.
► Mexico: A Parametria poll from July 2018 showed corruption followed by crime and then the economy as the key issues that prompted voters to elect President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. In office, he has pledged little on climate but did halt fracking for shale. Then he broke ground on a new gasoline refinery, while putting auctions for renewable energy production contracts on hold. Meanwhile fires near Mexico City worsen the air quality in a city already plagued by smog. In May, schools were closed for a day because the air quality was hazardous.
► Brazil: With massive deforestation of the Amazon, and epic floods and droughts hitting its vast agriculture and energy supply—water supplies in Brasilia were restricted for two days a week last summer—Brazil may be one of the countries where climate issues are most visible. Yet it is rarely a central debate in elections or a top concern in voter surveys. President Jair Bolsonaro makes no secret of his intention to exploit resources rather than preserve them. In a December 2018 Ibope poll, unemployment, corruption and health and public security topped the list of voter concerns. Only 1% of those polled cited the environment as a main concern.
► Japan: Last month, Hokkaido had the hottest temperature ever recorded for May in Japan. Pollsters do not as a rule ask about climate change in monthly surveys, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rarely addresses it in speeches. Some polling suggests concern over the issue has fallen since a peak in 2007. However, asked what the government should prioritize in terms of scientific research, 66% of respondents to a January survey conducted by the Nikkei placed “energy and the environment” second after health. All parties have environmental policies in their manifestos, with agreement on an 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050.
► India: Measures to combat the world’s worst air pollution made it onto political party manifestos for this year’s elections for the first time in India’s history. Voters’ chief concerns, however, were a lack of government support for farmers, coupled with growing rural distress, a lack of jobs and, in areas like Chennai, a looming water crisis. The ruling BJP does seem to have realized that climate change and droughts are a growing concern, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a separate ministry for water called Jal Shakti.
► Australia: “The environment” is creeping up the scale of issues for voters in the world’s driest inhabited continent, but is still just outside the top five concerns. The Ipsos Issues Monitor placed it sixth in its March report, with 21% of respondents identifying it as a major concern, compared with 10 percent in 2015. The top five issues were the cost of living, healthcare, crime, the economy and immigration. Still, a separate Lowy Institute survey released this week found that Australians see climate change as the No. 1 “critical threat,” ahead of cyberattacks and North Korea’s nuclear program. Energy and the environment was a key dividing line in the May election, with voters unexpectedly backing Scott Morrison’s conservative, pro-mining government.
► South Korea: Perhaps unsurprisingly, relations with North Korea are the top concern in Seoul. A weekly Gallup Poll for May 31 found the other main reasons for approval or disapproval of President Moon Jae-in to be his diplomacy, anti-corruption drive, welfare, economy and employment matters. Climate change didn’t feature, despite what was probably the biggest wildfire in South Korea’s history raging that same month. Concerns have also risen in recent years over dangerous levels of fine dust pollution, prompting the army to be drafted in to monitor the phenomenon.
► Indonesia: The world’s largest island nation vies with Australia as the world’s largest coal exporter. It’s also the biggest producer of palm oil, a practice only achievable through unbridled deforestation and expansion of plantations. While the April elections were largely fought on bread and butter issues like unemployment, inflation and wealth distribution, along with divisive religious identity politics, the government is not immune to climate matters. The capital, Jakarta, is sinking due to rising sea levels, and international pressure is forcing a move toward a less-damaging biodiesel program for palm oil.
► China: Granted, the world’s most population nation doesn’t hold elections, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to the impact of man-made climate change. The Communist Party sought to curb coal-burning power stations to improve air quality, and President Xi Jinping signed up to the Paris climate accords. A November 2017 survey, ‘Climate Change in the Chinese Mind,’ found a high level of awareness of climate change and concluded that 90% of those surveyed supported implementation of the Paris Agreement.
► Turkey: Freak storms ravaged Istanbul two years ago, but voters have other concerns. They regard unemployment, the cost of living and depreciation of the Turkish lira as the most significant problems facing the country, according to the Social and Political Trends in Turkey survey conducted by Kadir Has University. Terrorism, an ever-present threat, has receded in recent months. Climate and the environment didn’t feature in the January survey.
► Israel: Climate concerns are not on the Israeli voter’s radar, even after a five-year drought sent the amount of rain reaching natural water sources to its lowest level in about a century and accelerated the shrinkage of the Dead Sea. In a May survey, the Israel Democracy Institute research center found only 2.5% of Jewish Israelis and 6.9% of Israeli Arabs said the environment should be a top issue discussed in coalition agreements. Defense and socioeconomic matters top the list of priorities as income inequities fester and security threats loom on the country’s northern and southern borders.
► Nigeria: Climate concerns are almost absent from Nigeria voters, despite desertification in the country’s north east and the shrinking of the Lake Chad basin thought to be behind the southern migration of herdsmen leading to violent clashes with farmers. None of the major political parties had it in their manifestos or even mentioned it during February’s elections. Education, security and electricity were the top three concerns for Nigerian voters going into the election, followed by improving the economy, agriculture and jobs.
► South Africa: In a country with a jobless rate approaching 28% in March, voters consistently placed jobs and unemployment at the top of their concerns in three polls by the South African Institute of Race Relations from September 2018 through April 2019. Corruption came next, followed by basic services like electricity and water, crime and insecurity, education and housing. In the list of 13 key concerns, ranging from drug abuse to racism, climate didn’t feature. That’s despite a water crisis that peaked in mid-2017 to mid-2018 and brought Cape Town to the brink of becoming the first major city in the world to run out of water.
► Kenya: A Nairobi-based Trends and Insights for Africa (TIFA Research) poll in 2018 showed the Kenyan electorate to be most concerned by the high cost of living (58%), unemployment (14%), lack of access to credit (6%), poverty (5%), political tension (5%) and poor healthcare (3%). As of May this year the rains were delayed unusually, prompting the central bank to cut the economic forecast of the agriculture-dependent economy. And yet 71% of Kenyan respondents to a Pew Research Center poll of global threats—ranging from cyberattacks to North Korea’s nuclear program—cited climate change as their chief concern.