For the very first time, a ground-breaking new study has revealed what the world really thinks about climate change.
By crunching the numbers from a 2007-2008 Gallup World Poll, researchers were able to identify the factors that most influence climate change awareness and risk perception for 90 percent of the world's population.
The results are far from comforting.
The study found a striking discrepancy between climate awareness in developed nations and developing nations.
While more than 90 percent of people in North America, Europe and Japan are aware of climate change, the majority of the developing world has no idea that climate change is even happening.
Overall, the report found that 40 percent of adults worldwide - about 2 billion people - have never heard of climate change. Amongst the public in developing nations, like Egypt, Bangladesh and India, this number rises to more than 65 percent.
The difference is stark and worrying.
Many people in developing countries, especially farmers, are already feeling the effects of a changing climate. Yet too many lack the concept of climate change to inform their future decision-making. As a result, developing nations are missing crucial information on what crops to plant, where to plant them, what energy to invest in and where to build their new cities.
Without this information, these countries are more likely to make decisions that put their citizens and their infrastructure at greater risk.
"Developing countries around the world are making critical long-term investments for the future and do not have the extra capital to make and fix big mistakes," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in a blog.
"Unfortunately, not knowing you are at risk can put you at greater risk."
The research specifically looked at what factors influence climate change and how they differ across the globe. For instance, in China climate change awareness is closely associated with proximity to urban areas. Whereas, in the U.S. awareness is closely associated with civic engagement. Unsurprisingly, the study found that education was the greatest determinant of climate change awareness.
In developing countries, basic education is an issue. According to UNESCO, there are currently about 1 billion non-literate adults in the world. Obviously, if a person is illiterate, it will be much more difficult for them to access or understand the science of climate change.
Even still, the report found that while developed nations like the U.S. and China are more aware of climate change, people in developing countries perceive climate change as a much greater threat.
"This is for a variety of reasons, but particularly because they live in societies that often lack the resilience – the economic, technological, and social capital – to bounce back quickly from extreme events," said Leiserowitz.
"Developed countries have far more resources to respond, recover, and rebuild after a disaster."
What's more, the study found the factors that influence risk perception are vastly different from region to region.
For instance, people in Latin America and Europe perceive climate change as a greater threat when they understand that humans are the major cause. Meanwhile, people in Africa and Asia perceive climate change as a greater threat when they personally experience the effects, like changes in temperature.
On the other hand, Americans are more likely to perceive climate change as a personal threat when they understand it is human-caused, when they perceive that local temperatures have changed, and when they support government efforts to preserve the environment.
In other words, the level of public engagement varies from country to country and region to region, depending on a variety of local factors. Therefore, it makes sense that the best policies will be those that take these variations into account.
Even still, the findings indicate that there are some universal steps that can be taken to improve climate awareness. These solutions include improving basic education, climate literacy and public understanding of the local dimensions of climate change.
Only then will these countries begin to build public and political support for climate action.
The study was published in Nature Climate Change.