What Do Americans Really Think About Climate Change?

Poll Reveals Wide Gaps in Public Knowledge of Climate and Climate Change

Knowledge of Climate Change

A new poll from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication demonstrates yet again that communicators of climate science information, such as those of us at Climate Central, have a lot of work to do. The study of 2,030 adults found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but they disagree about the cause of such warming. In an interesting exercise, the pollsters — Anthony Leiserowitz and Nicholas Smith of Yale University, and Jennifer R. Marlon if the University of Wisconsin-Madison — graded Americans' climate knowledge, and found that just eight percent of people would receive an “A” or “B”, whereas 52 percent would flunk outright, with an “F”.


Here are a few excerpts from the executive summary.

“The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. 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. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only: 

  • 57 percent know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat; 
  • 50 percent of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities; 
  • 45 percent understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;  
  • 25 percent have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.” 

“Meanwhile, large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions.”  

Another interesting finding from the poll is that, contrary to some reports, the public puts great trust in scientists and scientific organizations to tell them about climate science, even after the so-called “climategate” brouhaha and discoveries of small errors in the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report during the past year. “... This study finds that Americans trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than any other source of information about global warming,” the executive summary states.

We'll have more on this polling in the coming days as we digest its findings.

IPCC Reforms

The U.N. climate panel, meeting in Busan, South Korea this week, agreed to several reforms aimed at shoring up its fact-checking and governance procedures. The moves came in response to errors that were found in its landmark 2007 report and the panel's trouble-plagued response to such errors. The Nobel Prize-winning panel implemented many of the recommended reforms from the InterAcademy Council (IAC), which released a report in August on the IPCC's procedures for producing its authoritative climate science assessments, which governments around the world use as a basis for climate change policy making.

Perhaps the biggest news to emerge from the meeting is that IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri will remain at the helm of the panel through the issuance of its next report in 2013. Pachauri had come under heavy criticism for his slow, defensive responses when questions were raised about claims in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, such as a projection that Himalayan glaciers may disappear as early as 2035. That projection had been sourced to an environmental organization, rather than a peer-reviewed scientific study. One of the reforms agreed to this week is a new procedure for reviewing scientific findings that come from such reports, which scientists refer to as “gray literature.”

The IAC had recommended “fundamental reforms” of the IPCC, including term limits for its leader and a new communications infrastructure to help facilitate media relations. However, there has not yet been a decision on imposing term limits, according to Reuters. “Pachauri, re-elected in 2008 to a second term, said a one-term limit, if adopted, would apply only to future IPCC leaders when he steps down in 2014 after presenting the next report,” Reuters reported.

The IPCC also established task forces to examine issues such as boosting the capabilities of the ten-person strong IPCC Secretariat in Geneva. It further agreed to establish a communications strategy, since media relations is (to put it mildly) an area the largely volunteer-based group has long struggled with. More details on the IPCC reforms can be found in this IPCC press release.

In a speech to representatives of the more than 100 countries that comprise the IPCC, Pachauri addressed the organization's recent difficulties.

“The past ten months or so have been a challenging period for the IPCC, and while there have been some shortfalls and mistakes on our part, what we have been through is also a reflection of the heightened scrutiny and interest that we have been subjected to. At the IPCC we understand that perhaps our biggest challenge is our own effectiveness in being able to provide scientific knowledge on climate change in a manner that has implications for a large range of human activities. A diversity of reactions is, therefore, to be expected. The greatest challenge facing the IPCC is the very success of the organization.”

Pachauri also addressed the communications challenges the group faces:

“It is important for the Panel to come up with a full assessment of how the IPCC should equip itself to deal with communications and information dissemination requirements in a world where information spreads instantaneously across the globe. To that extent the past one year has been an important learning experience for all of us in the IPCC, and I would submit that the results of the modest capacity enhancement which we have implemented will start showing only now.”

“Diet” Hurricane Paula Hits Cuba

NASA satellite image of Hurricane Paula on October 12, when it packed 100 mph winds.
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

Compact Hurricane Paula struck the northwest coastline of Cuba yesterday while weakening rapidly from its peak intensity of sustained winds of 100 miles per hour. The storm was extraordinarily small compared to other storms this year. For example, Hurricane Igor, which caused damage on Bermuda and delivered a punishing blow to Newfoundland, Canada, was one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes on record, with tropical storm force winds extending about 500 miles from the storm's center at one point. Hurricane Paula, however, had a hurricane force wind diameter of just ten miles, with tropical storm force winds reaching up to 60 miles from the center of the storm.

Furthermore, Hurricane Paula marks yet another storm that did not make landfall in the U.S. this season. According to Colorado State University researchers Brian McNoldy and Phil Klotzbach, in seasons that are this active, the U.S. has a whopping 95.4 percent chance of being hit by a hurricane, and a 20.5 percent chance of being struck by a major hurricane of Category Three strength or greater. Yet not a single storm has made landfall in the U.S. so far. The 2010 Hurricane season is not over yet, however, and computer models are showing a new storm may form in the Caribbean by early next week, McNoldy stated in an email.