Categorized | Climate Change

Americans and Climate Change—Concern and Confusion

Bleached Elkhorn Coral. Photo: NOAA

Researchers from Yale University recently released Americans’ Knowledge of  Climate Change, a comprehensive survey of attitudes and knowledge. The good news is: 63% of the 2,030 Americans surveyed believe that climate change is real. Given the controversies over the past year relating to the “climategate” emails and the IPCC report, and outright mockery of climate change from some in the media and Congress, it is heartening that a majority of Americans still accept climate change is real. The numbers represent a bit of a recovery from a low point in climate change concern in early 2010 – the same researchers found that only 57% of Americans were concerned (but it is still considerably lower than the 71% rate of concern they found in 2008.)

The bad news in the survey provides a window into why American’s attitudes about climate change seem to be so malleable: most people lack a firm understanding of the issue. Only one in ten Americans consider themselves to be “very well informed” about climate change.  Even this low number might be an overestimate of our climate knowledge: the researchers also found that only one percent of respondents scored an “A” grade on a series of questions testing specific knowledge of the climate system and the causes and effects of climate changes. Even worse, there are some serious misconceptions out there: for instance, a majority of Americans incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer is one of the causes of climate change and 43% think that banning aerosol cans will help with the problem.

And for the impacts of climate change that people don’t see in their daily lives, levels of awareness are dismal indeed: for example, only one percent of Americans report that they know “a lot” about coral bleaching and ocean acidification. The lessons in the report are a stark reminder of the gap between the state of climate change research and our ability to translate it to a wider audience—a huge challenge for translating our understanding into public policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One sign of hope is that respondents reported high levels of trust in scientists and scientific organizations: NOAA, NASA, NSF, “scientists” and “science museums” all received high marks of trust as sources of climate  change information; much higher, in fact, than weather reporters, the news media, or for that matter, environmental organizations. And while most Americans report that the main place they have heard about global warming is television, large majorities agree that both schools and the government should do more to teach people about the causes, impacts, and solutions to the climate crisis.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) – a collaboration between 13 different federal agencies – is currently developing a new strategic plan.  The U.S., through the USGCRP has produced some of the most important climate change science in the last decade.  Yet the Yale study of the public’s understanding of climate change issues sheds light on serious shortcomings of the federal government’s delivery of scientific information.  As the USGCRP develops a new strategic plan, the government should include a strategic communication and education plan to translate its scientific findings and deliver them to the public and policy makers in useable forms.  The same is true for any single agency engaged in the development of climate change science and response, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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- who has written 22 posts on dotWild.

Aimee Delach is a Senior Policy Analyst at Defenders of Wildlife. Aimee develops policies to help land managers and decision-makers incorporate climate change threats into efforts to protect wildlife and habitats.

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