The UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, would like the world to know that climate change is considered the most urgent issue around the world.
Her agency produced a report, Surprising Citizens’ Views on Climate Change, in partnership with national partners like the Danish Board of Technology Foundation, identifying the views on climate change from 80 countries.
The results are spectacular: Almost 80% are very concerned about the impacts of climate change and 79% say their country should cut CO₂ even if other nations don’t.
However, looking at how these answers were obtained reveals an agency that engineered a survey that could only come out with one result.
Participants at 104 events in 80 different countries were surveyed, on average with 100 participants. The process meant that people who were strongly concerned with climate change were most likely to participate: first, they had to read a 32-page publication on climate change; then they had to spend the better part of a day showing up for a so-called “citizen consultation” with videos and talks, where they would engage in roundtable debates on the physical science of climate change, its social impacts and the political strategies to combat it.
Clearly, if you think climate change is the world’s most important issue, you are much more likely to be willing to spend this much time engaging. If you think climate change comes further down the global priority list, you would be much more likely to do something else.
This massive self-selection is reflected in the response rate. In Denmark, 6,000 citizens were invited to the consultation, but only 175 accepted the invitation. Of 175, 150 were selected to reflect the general population of Denmark, and of these only 119 participants showed up on the day – less than a 2% response rate.
Moreover, watching videos about climate change and debating climate action not only sorts participants beforehand, it also massively primes the answers. Had you done a similar exercise with any other issue – ISIS, say, or education or healthcare – you would be guaranteed to get similar, ultra-urgent responses.
It is a sign that even UNFCCC is uncomfortable with the findings when it leaves out some of the most startling conclusions – like the fact that 65% agree that the world should do “whatever it takes” to limit temperatures to 2°C, although this could cost more than $56tr annually by the end of the century, according to the UN Climate Panel. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, 83% apparently endorse this view.
The project claims to show “how far citizens around the world are willing to go, in order to deal with climate change and to bring forward an energy transition.” Yet, we already have many surveys of people’s concern for climate change that actually are representative.
In the US, Gallup and Pew has regularly surveyed Americans on their worry about global warming. Gallup found last year that 24% of all Americans worry a great deal about global warming. In comparison, the UNFCCC methodology suggests that, on average, a whopping 80.3% of Americans were “very concerned”. In Colorado, apparently, every single person who participated was “very concerned”.
Americans are, of course, worried about many things – when Gallup asks them about their concerns across 15 areas, global warming comes next-to-last. They worry more about the economy, the budget deficit and health care, but also more about homelessness, drugs and affordable energy. In a Pew study from 2015, climate comes next-to-last in a list of 23 national priorities.
Similarly, the European Union regularly asks what are the most important issues for each nation – here “environment, climate and energy” comes 11th most important of 13 topics, after jobs and the economy, but also behind debt, pensions and education.
The UN has asked more than 8 million people across the world what policies they most want. Climate comes 16th out of 16 choices, after 15 other priorities.
Climate change is a real problem and most people find climate action reasonably important. But there are many other global problems that the world finds even more important. When people are asked to prioritise, action on climate is globally the least important priority. This is not the message that Figueres wanted, but it has the benefit of being correct.
Bjorn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He researches the smartest ways to help the world, for which he was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. His numerous books include The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place and The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030.