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Why rich countries worry more about global warming than poor ones

 Protesters calling for massive economic and political changes to curb the effects of global warming hold a sit in around the Wall Street Bull statue on Broadway on September 22, 2014 in New York City
Protesters calling for massive economic and political changes to curb the effects of global warming hold a sit in around the Wall Street Bull statue on Broadway on September 22, 2014 in New York City
Andrew Burton

Climate experts have long warned that global warming will have an unequal impact around the world. Poorer countries that are less well-equipped to deal with sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts, and other disasters will get hit harder than rich countries. Egypt will have more difficult time coping than the Netherlands:

Climate_change_inequality_map

(Standard & Poor's)

But who's actually more concerned about global warming? A massive worldwide survey by the UN suggests that rich countries actually place a higher priority on climate change than poor countries do. (Thanks to Annalisa Merelli for the pointer.)

First, let's look at countries ranked "very high" on the UN's Human Development Index — the United States, western Europe, Japan, and so on.

Wealthy countries rank climate #9 on the priority list

very high HDI climate

(MYWorld/UN)

"Action on climate change" is a priority for about half of respondents in these wealthy countries — less urgent than education, clean water, and better health care, but above "better transport and roads" and "equality between men and women."

(Also note that "protecting rivers, forests, and oceans" ranks fifth on the list. Given that man-made carbon emissions are quickly acidifying the world's oceans, these issues aren't unrelated at all.)

Now let's look at countries that rank "medium" on the UN's Human Development Index — India, South Africa, Vietnam, Bolivia, Egypt, Bangladesh. Climate change is much lower on the list, with only about a quarter of respondents ranking it as a priority:

Mid-range nations rank climate #14 on the priority list

medium HDI climate

(MYWorld/UN)

Now let's look at the poorest countries ranked "low" on the UN Human Development Index — Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, Haiti, and so on. For these countries, climate change ranks dead last, with fewer than 10 percent rating it as a priority (protecting forests, rivers and oceans came in second-to-last):

Poor countries rank climate last on the priority list

poor countries climate

(MYWorld/UN)

So what's the upshot here? Researchers have long pointed out that people don't tend to worry as much about long-range environmental issues when they have more immediate needs, like health care or jobs or trying to affordable food. (Though climate change isn't entirely separate from all of these issues — particularly food.) And poorer countries, obviously, have a lot of those concerns.

For poorer countries, it's also worth highlighting the fact that reliable energy ranks much higher than climate change on the list of concerns. Westerners of all political persuasions take access to round-the-clock electricity for granted, and environmentalists aren't asking anyone to give that up. But for countries like India, where 400 million people still lack access to power, there's often a real tension between curtailing fossil fuel use and bringing people up to what Americans would consider a minimally acceptable standard of living.

The UN has tried to address this with its "sustainable energy for all" initiatives (and India, for its part, is looking at technologies like solar power to solve some of its energy access woes, particularly in rural areas away from the grid). Still, it's a daunting challenge — and unless the world can figure out how to square the two, tackling climate change will be that much more difficult.

Further reading:

7 charts that show the fundamental dispute between rich and poor countries over how to deal with climate change

Can the world fight climate change and energy poverty at the same time?

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