America flunks Climate 101
America flunks Climate 101
It should come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that education is a cornerstone of building a movement and, ultimately, getting strong action taken on an issue like climate change. Educating decision makers is extremely important, but with so much disinformation flying around, we also need to ensure that voters understand the problem more than adequately as well so they can hold their decision-makers accountable.
It seems that we lack that understanding though. A full 52 percent of Americans would flunk a (admittedly difficult) test on climate change. The full study from Yale also reveals that only 1 percent of Americans would receive an A. And climate change won't curve the test, I promise you. The full study, with an excellent executive summary, is worth looking over.
Some of the more interesting nuggets for me, as someone whose day job is climate change education (and who wants to see Congress address the issue immediately, or better yet, yesterday), involve our concept of what causes global warming. While 66% of Americans understand the greenhouse effect in concept, only 45% seem to understand that carbon dioxide traps heat. To me, that's a major problem that a full majority of the United States doesn't understand the mechanism by which the Earth is warming. In fact, majorities of Americans believe that almost every other atmospheric problem we have, from the hole in the ozone layer to acid rain and aerosols (and, interestingly, the space program), causes global warming.
Hope is on the horizon though. While the scientific reasons are over our heads, we seem to understand that driving cars, burning fossil fuels, and cutting down large swaths of forest causes climate change to get worse -- chalk one up to education. These are understandings that can drive behavioral change, but I think they remain weak unless we better understand mechanisms. That's hard to drive home if you only get a sound bite to convey your message, but to me, these results tell me that we need to be telling people that driving cars and burning fossil fuels cause climate change because they emit carbon dioxide, which traps heat, changing the climate. It's necessarily more nuanced, but can create that understanding that lets that person convince someone else.
One final thing pops out at me from this survey, though a lot in there is still very important to know. In excess of 70 percent of Americans trust scientists, museums, and government science agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Yet, we don't seem to be getting our information about climate change, if we get it at all, from those sources. Instead, we get it from television (88%), newspapers (71%), family and friends (69%), books or magazines (68%), and the Internet (65%). Maybe that's why only thirty-nine percent of Americans think that most scientists think global warming is happening and 38 percent think that scientists are still disagreeing about whether or not global warming is happening (instead of when, where, and how). In fact, 98 percent of scientists actively publishing on climate change agree that climate change is occurring and is cause by human activity. In short, we believe scientists are extremely credible on climate change, but we generally have very little idea what they're saying.
Overall, I found looking over this study to be generally encouraging. Even as I was discouraged by the information I've been talking about and the country received a failing grade, the level of nuance that is understood on some issues surprised me. What I learned here is that we have to fill in the gaps for people, both citizens and lawmakers. Some of the best people to do it are scientists since we trust them so much -- though they need to tread lightly to not become political themselves.
If you think you can fill in those gaps, consider getting local and teaching your community and lawmakers about climate change.