Poll points way ahead for climate change communication
News flash: Americans are confused about global warming. Of course, that's not exactly earth-shattering news, considering the bevy of polling data released during the past year, much of which has shown declining majority support for the view that global warming is primarily caused by human activities -- a view held by the vast majority of climate scientists.
Now a new poll released by Yale University late last week found that 52 percent of Americans would fail a climate change test, and that only 50 percent of those who think global warming is happening think it is caused mostly by human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal.
The poll results reveal a society that has not yet fully engaged with the climate change issue, with 48 percent of respondents saying they have thought about global warming "a little" or "not at all." Perhaps most importantly, from my perspective at least, the poll found that only 11 to 14 percent of Americans say they are "very well informed" about how the climate system works, the different causes and consequences of global warming, and the ways global warming can be reduced (though around 50 percent did say they were "fairly well informed" on these aspects). About 75 percent would like more information before they make up their mind on global warming, with most of those saying the Internet would be the first place they would go to learn more.
Some may see these results as cause for despair -- and indeed there are plenty of reasons for scientists, journalists and climate policy advocates to be concerned. For example, the survey of 2,030 American adults found that a full 21 percent of respondents believe the greenhouse effect refers to the ozone layer, rather than to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat, such as carbon dioxide.
Also, the survey found that 38 percent of Americans say there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is occurring. In fact, there is very little disagreement in the climate science community about whether the climate is warming and why. The major questions in scientific circles mainly concern how quickly the climate will continue to warm, by how much, and what the specific ramifications will be.
The survey also found considerable confusion about the differences between weather and climate, and a whole lot of befuddlement about specific climate science findings. Much of the poll results seem to reveal that most Americans have never taken a climate science class or attended a lecture on the subject, which is not surprising since many universities have only recently begun offering such classes at the intro level to undergraduates, and high school Earth science classes may not get into much detail about how the climate works.
Americans don't seem to know how quickly the planet's climate can change and has changed in the past, and they are confused about the interactions between temperature and carbon dioxide. A large majority -- 67 percent -- of Americans incorrectly believes that the climate has always shifted gradually between warm and cool periods. In reality, Earth's climate history is replete with instances of wrenching, sudden climate shifts that have altered the fate of species large and small.
In perhaps the strangest finding, nearly half of Americans believe that the space program contributes to global warming. On a related (and similarly strange) note, 43 percent of respondents believe global warming would be reduced if we "stop punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets."
By pointing out where the gaps in public understanding are, the Yale poll actually amounts to a helpful blueprint for future climate science communications initiatives. It may help guide scientists, journalists, nonprofit groups and government agencies whose job it is to communicate climate science information and increase public understanding of this issue. The poll shows that Americans are receptive and even eager to learn more about Earth's climate, as well as possible solutions to the global warming problem.
For example, the poll shows that the public holds scientists in much higher esteem than most scientists probably assume is the case. This is despite the so-called "climategate" emails scandal earlier this year and the discovery of minor errors in the 2007 report by the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Both of those episodes supposedly dented public confidence in climate scientists.
However, there is an important caveat missing from the poll, and indeed from many of the recent lamentations about how little the public seems to grasp about climate science -- that is, even if everyone in this country possessed perfect information about climate change, and understood this information to its fullest extent, that would not guarantee any public policy outcomes.
Psychological studies have shown that individual responses to climate change information tend to be much more dependent on political affiliation and other factors. For example, college-educated Republicans are much more likely to doubt the reality or urgency of the climate change threat than college-educated Democrats.
Risk perception is another part of the problem with climate change -- it is a diffuse threat that appears to exist in the distant future, and therefore is quickly outweighed in most people's minds by more immediate concerns, such as the health of the economy. According to the poll's executive summary, "...many of these questions are outside the everyday practical needs of most people. Most people don't need to know about climate change in their daily life, thus it is not surprising that they have devoted little effort to learning these details."
Any communications push to improve Americans' climate literacy must take such social science findings into account, and recognize that this is not as straightforward as it might first seem, where if only people knew more, then everyone would have the same opinion and the appropriate policy actions would be taken to both adapt to and mitigate the threat. The interface between science, policy and the public is much more complicated than that.
The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.