Climate & COP27: Do the public in rich countries feel accountable for climate change?

Molly Anders, Paolo Morini

Dec 08, 2022

Climate & COP27: Do the public in rich countries feel accountable for climate change?

This is Part I in our series, Climate & COP27. Stay tuned for Part II: 'The Next Generation's Problem? How the public are waking up to climate change.

The establishment of a Loss & Damage Fund at COP27 represents the first acknowledgment by rich countries in the Global North of their role in addressing climate change’s disproportionate impacts on the Global South. For now it’s framed by negotiators simply as an act of solidarity, but the fund will ostensibly pool resources across global coffers to help communities face and recover from the impacts of climate change. Not much more is known yet about the fund, except that more will be revealed before COP28. At least nominally, the leaders of many Global North countries – long-known also as leaders in CO2 omissions – are on board, but what about the publics they represent? Are they concerned about climate change? How urgent is it that their leaders take action, from their point of view? Do they blame rich countries (and themselves) for the worst impacts of climate change?

In three nationally representative surveys conducted by YouGov in October and November 2022, the Development Engagement Lab assessed the German, French and British publics’ takes on climate action, from its urgency to who should be held responsible.

Who is to blame?

In France, we tried to understand who the public hold most responsible for climate change. Of our representative sample of 6,000 respondents, 49% believe rich countries are mostly responsible, while 32% believe both rich and poor countries carry the blame. Only 5% point to poor countries as the main instigators, though a whopping 14% say they ‘don’t know,’ indicating there is still quite a lot of ignorance or uncertainty around responsibility. We didn’t ask this question in Germany or Great Britain, so for now France is our only bellwether for who donor countries blame for most climate impacts. That said, we did ask respondents in all three countries who they believe should take action, either by funding initiatives or otherwise, which takes us some way toward understanding their view toward responsibility for climate change.

Who should take action on climate change?

We asked this question in a number of ways, trying to understand whether the public still believe individual action makes a difference, compared to national and policy action. In Great Britain, we asked respondents to rank individuals, people in the UK, or the UK government from 1-3 in order of who they think should take action to mitigate climate change. The most popular sequence was clear: 46% of people chose Government as most responsible for taking action, followed by the British people, with individuals/myself ranked last. Interestingly, the British public favour that hierarchy even more now than they did a year ago. Since 2021, the same hierarchy was chosen by 38%, so an increase of 8%. In other words, the British public decreasingly see individuals and members of the public as responsible for taking action on climate, and increasingly think their governments should affect change.

This is one of the most stable DEL findings: People are more concerned about climate change than most other global issues.

That same hierarchy of who is most responsible for climate action – government first, public second, individuals last – is true for the German public as well, though in Germany it’s less top-heavy and more distributed across the three: 34% chose that sequence. Interestingly, 24% of German respondents say they ‘don’t know,’ compared to only 18% in Great Britain.

In France, we approached this question a little differently. We asked respondents, ‘Thinking about climate change, please indicate for each of the following countries which you think are most affected and most responsible.’ We offered, ‘All countries equally,’ ‘poor countries’ and ‘rich countries.’ Choosing who is most responsible for climate change impacts, 49% point to rich countries, while 32% point to ‘all countries equally,’ and only 5% say poor countries should be considered responsible. Interestingly, when we asked this question last year, in 2021, 53% blamed rich countries alone. That’s a four percent drop in a single year in those who hold rich countries solely responsible. Meanwhile, the number who opted to blame all countries equally grew between 2021 to 2022, from 30% to 32%. So the public in France may increasingly believe the blame should be spread out among all countries, rather than fall solely on rich countries.

When we talk about who is impacted, the hierarchy inverts, but the trend is similar. 51% of French respondents say poor countries are most impacted, 27% say ‘all countries equally’ and only 9% say ‘rich countries.’ Compared with last year’s figures, there is a corresponding trend: Fewer people now feel that poor countries are most impacted, down from 32% in 2021 to 27% in 2022. Rich countries by contrast saw an increase in their perceived impact, up from 7% in 2021 to 9% in 2020. Interestingly, the number of those who believe climate change impacts ‘all countries equally’ went down from 53% in 2021 to 51% in 2022. Those seem to have moved to the ‘Don’t know’ column, which increased a whopping 5% between 2021 and 2022.

The public may be shifting toward blaming all countries equally rather than just rich countries.

What about financial responsibility? Is there a shift to spread out the cost as well as the blame? Digging into this question, we asked the French public specifically about who should provide the most financial support for tackling climate change: rich countries, poor countries, or both. Interestingly, in 2021, a whopping 56% told us that rich countries should foot the bill, while 29% said both rich countries and poor countries should provide equal financial support (only 6% said poor countries should be held primarily responsible). When we asked the same question a year later, only 48% said rich countries should be solely held financially responsible, and the percentage of those who believe both rich and poor countries should provide the same support grew to 33%. (The percentage who want poor countries to pay shrunk by two percent, to 4%). It seems the French are decreasingly likely to feel that only rich countries should pay financially for the worst climate impacts, because they decreasingly feel they are solely to blame. It’s worth mentioning that once again, the number of people who ‘don’t know’ grew significantly. While it’s a good sign that people aren’t shifting the blame to poor countries – and in fact fewer people are isolating this group – they are moving toward both uncertainty and sharing financial responsibility among all countries – a possible harbinger for public opinion in the Global North of the new Loss & Damage Fund.

Written by

Molly Anders

Molly Anders

Research Insights and Engagement Lead at the Development Engagement Lab

Paolo Morini

Paolo Morini

Senior Research Fellow with the Development Engagement Lab, based at University College London

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