Uh Oh: Climate Change Confuses Most Americans

How strong is your knowledge of climate change? If you’re the average American, sad to say you’d probably get a failing grade according to a new study by Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication. A shocking 57% of Americans recently surveyed got an “F,” indicating that there’s a steep hill to climb to an educated public.

This is but one of a few striking findings in the survey. What stands out most is what a poor job of scientists and the media are doing communicating their work and their positions. Only 11% of those surveyed considered themselves “well-informed” on how the climate system works. Of course it takes individual initiative to seek out news on climate science (thanks for being here, dear reader!), but researchers and the media also have an obligation to make climate news more accessible. We need more than 11% of the population to be well-informed if we’re to craft realistic solutions.

Also interesting, 39% of people believe most scientists think global warming is happening while 38% believe there’s a lot of disagreement between scientists. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in the field of science where it matters most: climate science. Poll after poll has shown that almost 100% of climate scientists accept the evidence of climate change and believe we’re the main cause. This shows a deep failure by the media to show the true nature of the debate.

The two percent of researchers who aren’t in agreement deserve to heard. But they do not deserve equal time in the media. Imagine if you owned 98% of a business but your less-knowledgeable partner with only two percent had as much sway as you. It’s a ridiculous way to approach business and a ridiculous way to present such an important issue.

The report also has a bit of a bad news about our understanding of the causes and effects of climate change. A large majority of survey respondents believe reducing toxic waste will reduce global warming. If only that were true. While there would certainly be local benefits, it would have zero impact on reducing the effects of climate change.

In addition, the survey asked questions about glaciers and oceans. Most respondents were unable to identify that most glaciers in the world are melting or that thermal expansion and not melting sea ice is what is causing most sea level rise. I can see how these are difficult questions to answer, but it once again indicates a huge gap between the public and the scientific community.

So the question is how to bridge that gap. The Yale survey has some answers. First, it means talking about climate change in schools. Luckily, 75% of respondents want to have the subject taught in schools and 68% believe the government should spend more time teaching Americans about climate change. (Are you listening, President Obama?)

More importantly is where people get most of their information. Currently, 82% of people get their climate change information from television, 72% from the newspaper, and 64% from the internet. This is unfortunate because climate change doesn’t get a lot of face time on TV (which may in part contribute to the lack of a well-informed populace). On the bright side, 61% of respondents indicated the internet would be their first stop to learn more about climate change.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pew Center Project for Excellence in Journalism has shown that global warming gets much more coverage in the blogosphere and through social media like Twitter than in traditional media. That means legitimate, knowledgeable voices are need more than ever in this realm if the public is to better understand the science and the policy prescriptions. And based on the findings in the survey, we have a long way to go.

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