Americans Believe in Global Warming, But They’re Not Sure Why

Written by David Connell on . Posted in Learn

If Americans were graded on their knowledge of climate change, just over half would fail and another 40 percent would get a “C” or “D,” according to a recent study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Though a majority – 63 percent – believes that global warming is happening, many do not understand why, according to the report, “Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change,” which is based on a nationally representative survey of 2,030 adults conducted this summer.

“These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks,” writes Project Director Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D.

The study (with a + or – 2 percent sampling error at 95 confidence), included questions about how the climate system works, and the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to global warming, and includes peer-reviewed, scientific sources for each answer.

Among the gaps in knowledge:
Very few (6-7 percent) correctly understand that in 1850 there were about 290 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, while today there are 390 parts per million.

A third of Americans (33 percent) incorrectly believe that since the Earth’s climate has changed naturally in the past, humans are not the cause of global warming now.

While 42 percent of Americans correctly understand that the U.S. emits the most CO2 per person, nearly a third (31 percent) said they do not know, while 18 percent incorrectly said China.

Large majorities of Americans have read or heard nothing about coral bleaching (75 percent) – which is caused by warming oceans – or ocean acidification (77 percent), which is caused by the ocean’s absorption of CO2.

Only 19 percent correctly understand that, on average, CO2 stays in the atmosphere hundreds to thousands of years after it has been emitted.

Only a third of Americans correctly selected a “threshold” or “tipping point” model as the best answer for describing the workings of the climate system, in which a small amount of global warming will have little to no effect, but a large amount of warming will cross critical thresholds with dangerous effects.

The study authors conclude that many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society: “These results likely reflect the unorganized and sometimes contradictory fragments of information Americans have absorbed from the mass media and other sources.”

The authors do caution not to read too much into the grading scale, as they note questions could have been phrased many different ways, and some focused on detailed aspects of climate change. And the results shouldn’t be too surprising, as few Americans have ever taken a formal course on climate change.

This study may raise questions about whether climate change should become a part of the science curriculum in schools – an idea that 75 percent of survey participants agreed with. Meanwhile, 68 percent would welcome a national program to teach Americans about the issue.

There were some areas where climate knowledge was greater. Many Americans understand that emissions from cars and trucks and fossil-fuel burning contribute to the problem, and that a transition to renewable energy is part of the solution.

In relatively good news for the Conservancy’s work, 73 percent correctly understand that reducing tropical deforestation would help reduce global warming.

And even against a backdrop of the recent controversy known as “Climategate,” this study found that Americans trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than any other source of information about global warming.

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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