VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.
Whether a person is aware of climate change or not — and how much they worry about it — depends on a range of factors, including what country someone lives in and how developed it is, their education level, and even what the local air quality is like, according to a report published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
In fact, when researchers analyzed data from over 100 countries collected by Gallup in 2007 and 2008, they found two big trends. The report could help to explain why, as extreme weather events displace tens of millions of people each year and diplomats prepare to meet in Paris for a historic climate change conference, public attention remains low in many countries, even ones most impacted by climate change.
The researchers found that in the developed world people were more likely to know about climate change than people in the developing world. Over 90 percent of those polled in the United States and Canada were aware of climate change. But in countries like India and Pakistan, only 30 to 39 percent of people knew about it. In Egypt, fewer than 30 percent of adults surveyed were aware of the problem.
While high profile international figures like Pope Francis and former US Vice President Al Gore speak frequently about the topic, on average, about 40 percent of people around the world did not know about climate change.
Also the researchers found that when people in poorer countries were aware of climate change, they were more likely to see it as a bigger danger than people in richer nations.
The study's lead author, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, said that lack of knowledge about climate change could have significant impact on whether or not nations prepare for the impacts of more frequent and more intense extreme weather events like floods, storms, and droughts.
"That's hugely important, because if you don't know about this risk, you are more at risk," Leiserowitz told VICE News.
Watch President Obama discuss climate change with Vice Co-founder and CEO Shane Smith:
Individuals and societies in those at-risk countries have to make development decisions regarding issues like the locations of cities and roads, he said, as well as what crops to plant.
"If you don't have climate change as a concept in mind, it's very difficult to make informed decisions for these kinds of long-term investments," said Leiserowitz. "Unfortunately these are countries, of course, that just don't have the resources to make many big mistakes."
However, when people in developing countries had heard of climate change, they were more likely to be worried about it. Over 80 percent of people in India and Egypt, for example, who already knew about climate change said they thought global warming was a serious threat.
"Of those people [who had heard of climate change], they are far more worried about it than people in the developed world," Leiserowitz said. "That too makes intuitive sense. They are in fact more vulnerable."
The study found that "civic engagement, communication access, and education" were the three biggest factors in the United States when it comes to climate change awareness. In China, the most significant factors were education level, whether respondents lived in an urban or rural area, and household income. Air quality at a local level also impacted how worried Chinese respondents were about the risks of climate change.
Ezra Markowitz, one of study's authors and an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, told VICE News that the study confirmed what researchers had long known, but perhaps not very well on a global scale: that there's great variability across populations in what leads them to become concerned about climate change.
"Advocates would love a one-size-fits-all approach to climate communication," he said. "But it's really unlikely to be effective in a world where everybody engages with this issue for different reasons."
Markowitz added that it makes sense that people in the developing world, when they had heard about climate change, were more worried about it. And, he said, since the data is from 2007 and 2008, global awareness of climate change has probably improved, although recent polling shows concern has remained relatively flat in the United States.
"Who's the most at risk from climate change? It's people in the developing world," he said.
Jennifer Morgan, the global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute, said the report helped to highlight the global inequities that make adapting to climate change such a difficult task.
"They do feel the vulnerability more, but they feel the vulnerability more because they're less developed, and that's not fair," Morgan said. "There's so much unfairness that's going on there. Not only do they not cause it, but they feel it more, and they don't have the resources to protect themselves from these impacts."
Follow Rob Verger on Twitter: @robverger