The Lima climate talks have just ended. Predictably, no substantive agreement was reached. The nations of the world agreed for the umpteenth time that climate change needs to be fixed but remained completely unable to agree as to who should pay for fixing it. For the umpteenth time the rich developed nations said it’s a global problem and everyone should pitch in. For the umpteenth time the poor developing nations said no, you rich guys caused it and should therefore pay to fix it, and besides there’s a clause in the original 1992 UNFCCC agreement that lets us off the hook (which there is).
One could easily come away with the impression that this is simply a sordid squabble over money. There are, however, reasons to believe that the position of the developing nations is conditioned by more than just money, and an ongoing poll that has received very little publicity sheds light on what it is. Flying under the radar, it’s the United Nations internet poll on how, together, we are going to shape a better world:
Why does your vote matter?
You’re part of a global vote at the United Nations, allowing people for the first time to have a direct say in shaping a better world.
The votes matter. The UN is working with governments everywhere to define the next global agenda to address extreme poverty and preserve the planet. The data from MY World continues to inform these processes and be used by decision makers around the world.
“I want this to be the most inclusive global development process the world has ever known” – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
The poll allows voters from any country to select the six options out of the following list of sixteen that they think will do most to eradicate poverty and preserve the planet. One of them is “Action taken on climate change”:
• Phone and internet access
• Equality between men and women
• Reliable energy at home
• Political freedoms
• Better healthcare
• Action taken on climate change
• Protecting forests, rivers and oceans
• Better transport and roads
• Better job opportunities
• An honest and responsive government
• A good education
• Affordable and nutritious food
• Protection against crime and violence
• Access to clean water and sanitation
• Support for people who can’t work
• Freedom from discrimination and persecution
The poll is unscientific, wide open to abuse (you promise faithfully to vote only once) and globally non-representative (over 80% of the seven million votes so far cast have come from India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Yemen, and almost half of them from just four organizations – the Youth Organization of Mexico City, the Millennium Development Goal groups of Nigeria, the Pakistan Youth Revolution Clan and Action for Pune Development). As we shall see, however, the results still yield some interesting insights.
The graphic below (data from Myworld2015) shows the results of ballots cast to date. “A good education” wins hands down. “Better health care” and “better job opportunities” have a solid hold on second and third and “an honest and responsible government” is all alone in fourth. And where does “action taken on climate change” come in? Despite UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s description of climate change as “the defining issue of our age” it comes in dead last. It seems that an overwhelming majority of Secretary Ban’s constituents disagree with him:
Figure 1: UN poll rankings by category
However, it’s not unprecedented for climate change to come at or close to the bottom when ranked against other concerns. It’s been a constant occurrence in the Pew poll in the US. Yet it is surprising that a UN poll in which concerned young people (I calculate the average age at around 22) have cast a disproportionate number of votes should show the same result. And climate change doesn’t just come in last overall. It comes in last among male voters, last among female voters, last among poorly-educated voters, last among moderately-well-educated voters, last among well-educated voters and last among every age group except the over-45s, who rank it as more important only than phone and internet access.
Equally surprising is the lack of concern about climate change shown by voters from the countries allegedly most seriously threatened by it. Voters from the Philippines, which was ravaged last year by Typhoon Haiyan, rank the need for action on climate change twelfth out of sixteen. The thirteen Sub-Saharan countries menaced by famine, pestilence and war rank it between eighth and sixteenth. The Maldives – whose Prime Minister held a cabinet meeting under water a few years ago to highlight the perils of rising sea levels – ranks it fourteenth and the submerging Pacific atoll of Kiribati ranks it only eighth, although this could be because the government has already bought a replacement island.
One can of course argue that the UN poll is so grossly unscientific that none of these results mean anything. Yet they conceal a trend that’s difficult to explain as anything other than real. Consider the graphic below:
Figure 2: UN poll rankings by category and voting group
Except for the two upward excursions that reflect the indifference of older voters to internet access the orange-colored “Action taken on climate change” bar hugs the bottom of the chart all the way across – until we get to the HDI categories. HDI stands for “Human Development Index”, which when stripped to its essentials turns out to be basically a measure of how wealthy a country is.
And the wealthier the country the farther climate change moves up the voter priority list.
The possibility of a link between rankings and wealth seemed worth looking into, so I ran some further checks. First I plotted the rankings voters from 183 countries gave to “Action taken on climate change” against the nominal per-capita GDP of the country (2013 IMF data). Note that there is no significant change when the points for India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Yemen, which between them contribute over 80% of the total vote, are removed:
Figure 3: “Action taken on climate change” ranking by country versus per-capita GDP, all countries
As would be expected the individual points show considerable scatter, but the class averages (red) show a linear decrease in rankings – i.e. the voters become progressively more concerned about climate change – as per-capita GDP increases. It’s hard to see how this could be an artifact of flaws in the polling process, so we can provisionally assume that we are looking at a real effect. And since voter perceptions are unlikely to have an impact on GDP we can further assume that GDP has an impact on voter perceptions, if not a very strong one in this case (correlation coefficient R=0.50).
The world, however, is a heterogeneous place. Figure 4 shows the data for Europe, which provides a more homogeneous sample. The plot shows the data for all European countries except Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Monaco. Countries of interest are labeled:
Figure 4: “Action taken on climate change” ranking by country versus per-capita GDP, Europe
There is a fairly strong relationship between European voters’ ranking of the need for action on climate change and the per-capita GDP of the country where they live (R=0.75, increasing to 0.82 when two small outlier countries – Luxembourg and Macedonia – are excluded).
Figure 4, however, omits a number of wealthy and/or populous countries outside Europe. I selected eighteen such countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea and the USA) and plotted them up with the results shown below. The trend line shows almost exactly the same gradient as the trend line for the European countries and the correlation coefficient is a very respectable 0.86:
Figure 5: “Action taken on climate change” ranking by country versus per-capita GDP, 18 wealthy/populous countries outside Europe
Combining the Figure 4 and Figure 5 data sets, which together include the bulk of the world’s population and almost all of its economic output, gives this:
Figure 6: Figure 4 and Figure 5 data combined
The correlation coefficient for the linear trend line is 0.78, although a logarithmic fit might give a significantly higher one.
What do we conclude from these results? I submit the following:
- People’s perceptions of the need to take action to combat climate change are directly related to the per-capita GDP of the country in which they live.
- People in developed countries usually have much higher per-capita GDPs than people in developing countries, therefore they usually give much higher priority to the need to combat climate change than people in developing countries do.
Or boiled down to the basics, people in rich countries care about climate change and people in poor ones don’t.
Which largely explains why twenty years of climate conferences have failed to achieve anything.
(Where do readers of Energy Matters rank the need to take action on climate change on the list of 16 options provided by the UN? Feel free to post a response – a single number will do. Information on per-capita GDP is optional.)