Citizen Action Monitor

Many of US public have poor understanding of climate science. How come?

Proportion of US public and policymakers who reject the science has grown.

No 468 Posted by fw, May 3, 2012

“Climate researchers know that the case for human-induced climate change has become stronger, more compelling, and increasingly urgent with each passing year. Yet in some countries, notably the US, the proportion of the public and policymakers who reject the science has grown.”

Effective communication is usually not a lecture but a conversation that involves what people really care about. People generally care less about basic science than about how climate change will affect them and what can be done about it. Furthermore, climate change is often framed as an environmental issue, when it should more appropriately be framed as an issue threatening the economy and affecting humanity’s most basic needs: food, water, safety, and security.

Although the paper from which the above passages were taken is a bit dated, it is still instructive for climate activists grappling with the challenge of communicating climate change science to the general public, press and policymakers.

This post presents only the opening paragraphs of a scientific paper urging climate scientists to improve the ways they convey their findings to a poorly informed, confused and often indifferent American public. My abridged version, below, with added subheadings, focuses on reasons why the public are so poorly informed. To read the complete paper, click on the linked title below. For a free, full-text version, click Download PDF.

Communicating the science of climate change by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, October 2011, p, 48 in Physics Today.

Scientific evidence for human-induced climate change is unequivocal

Over the past half century, the powerful new science of climate and climate change has come into being. Research during that period has settled a fundamental climate question that had challenged scientists since the 19th century: Will human beings, by adding carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, significantly affect climate? The answer, debated for decades, is now known to be yes. Scientists now understand clearly that humankind is no longer a passive spectator at the great pageant of climate change. They have established that the climate is indeed warming and that human activities are the main cause.1 Every year brings thousands more research papers containing new knowledge of the many aspects of climate change.

Yet rejection of the evidence has risen in ranks of US public and policymakers

Climate researchers know that the case for human-induced climate change has become stronger, more compelling, and increasingly urgent with each passing year. Yet in some countries, notably the US, the proportion of the public and policymakers who reject the science has grown. For example, though the evidence of global warming is unequivocal, a new study by a team from Yale and George Mason universities shows that as of May 2011—

  • Only 64% of Americans think the world is warming (down from a high of 71% percent in November 2008)
  • Only 47% of all respondents believe that global warming, if it exists, is caused mostly by human activity.2
  • A related study by the Yale–George Mason team classified the US public into “global warming’s six Americas.”3 Figure 1 shows those categories and the team’s most recent breakdown of the public into them. Only in the alarmed and concerned categories do majorities understand that the observed warming is caused by human activity.

Figure 1. Global warming’s six Americas in May 2011, as categorized by a 2011 public-opinion study by a team from Yale and George Mason universities.3

Americans are unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus

Americans are also unaware of the strength of the scientific consensus. At least 97% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is occurring and that it is primarily human-induced.4 But that strong consensus is largely unrecognized by the public —

  • Only 39% believe that most scientists think global warming is occurring
  • 40% believe there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether it’s occurring.
  • Even among those in the most engaged categories of figure 1, only 44% of the alarmed and 18% of the concerned say there is scientific agreement that the world is warming.
  • Among the disengageddoubtful, and dismissive, less than 5% believe there is such agreement.
  • Other misconceptions are rampant among Americans. For example, many people confuse climate change with the ozone hole. They incorrectly identify the ozone hole, aerosol spray cans, toxic waste, nuclear power, and the space program as causes of global warming.5

Reasons for confusion and outright rejection?

There are many reasons for the large-scale public confusion. (See the article by Steven Sherwood, Science controversies past and present)

In difficult times, people are more likely to reject science

Acceptance of the science of climate change appears to track with the strength of the economy. In difficult times, people seem more likely to reject the science. That may be because they believe that policies for addressing the problem might harm the economy. And perhaps people can only worry about so many things at a time.

Well-organized and well-funded disinformation campaign

A second major factor is the well-organized and well-funded disinformation campaign that has been waged against climate science for decades. As documented in numerous books, the campaign seeks to sow doubts about the science.6,7 Motivations for that campaign range from ideological to financial. Some fear that policies to address climate change will limit individual freedoms and the free market. Some in the oil and coal industries fear for their short-term profits. Among the purveyors of the disinformation are public-relations masters who have succeeded in crafting simple, clear messages and delivering them repeatedly. The public’s failure to perceive the scientific consensus seems to reflect the success of that campaign.

Small number of climate scientists disagree with widely accepted findings

It helps the disinformation campaign that a small number of climate scientists disagree with the widely accepted central findings of the field. That there are a few dissenters is not surprising; all areas of science have outliers. But the mainstream scientific conclusion that climate change is occurring and is mostly human-induced has been endorsed by professional societies and science academies worldwide.8

Widespread public scientific illiteracy

A third factor is widespread scientific illiteracy, which is related to the fact that people trust and believe those with whom they share cultural values and worldviews. Opinion leaders who espouse the notion that global warming is a hoax are, for some people, trusted messengers.

Many still call weather disasters as “acts of God”

A fourth factor is that for most of human history, people have seen weather as the province of God, and some simply cannot accept the idea that humans could affect it. We still call weather disasters “acts of God.”

Media reporting of climate science by unqualified reporters

Yet another factor is the way the media handle the topic. They often portray climate change as a controversy, presenting the opposing sides as equally credible. The current crisis in journalism has also resulted in fewer experienced reporters with the requisite expertise, which leads to coverage that can be inept and misleading.

Climate scientists unskilled at communicating climate science to the public

Not least important is how scientists communicate—or fail to do so. Reasons for that failure include what scientists talk about as well as how they talk about it. Narrative skills help reach people. Effective communication is usually not a lecture but a conversation that involves what people really care about. People generally care less about basic science than about how climate change will affect them and what can be done about it. Furthermore, climate change is often framed as an environmental issue, when it should more appropriately be framed as an issue threatening the economy and affecting humanity’s most basic needs: food, water, safety, and security.

For all those reasons, despite remarkable scientific advances, many people still do not realize, or do not accept, what climate scientists have discovered.6 The strong consensus in the expert community is not widely appreciated. There is a disturbingly large gulf between the research community’s knowledge and the general public’s perception.

Richard Somerville is a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, and the science director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit project based in Boulder, Colorado. Susan Joy Hassol, who works with climate scientists to communicate what they know to policymakers and the public, is the director of Climate Communication.

References

  1. S. Solomon et al., eds., Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis—Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeCambridge U. Press, New York (2007).
  2. A. Leiserowitzet al., Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, New Haven, CT (2011).
  3. A. Leiserowitz et al., Global Warming’s Six Americas in May 2011Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, New Haven, CT (2011).
  4. W. R. L. Anderegg et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 107, 12107 (2010).
  5. A. Leiserowitz, N. Smith, J. R. Marlon, Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change ,Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, New Haven, CT (2010).
  6. N. Oreskes, E. M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, New York (2010).
  7. R. Gelbspan, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster, Basic Books, New York (2004)
    R. Gelbspan, The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-up, the Prescription, Perseus, Cambridge, MA (1998)
    J. Hoggan, Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Greystone Books, Vancouver, BC, Canada (2009).
  8. R. C. J. Somerville, in The Development of Atmospheric General Circulation Models: Complexity, Synthesis and Computation, L. Donner, W. Schubert, R. Somerville, eds.,Cambridge U. Press, New York (2011), p. 225.
  9. B. Bolin, A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge U. Press, New York (2007).
Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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