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 ClimateChange Communication. A shocking 57% of Americans recently surveyed gotan "F," indicating that there’s a steep hill to climb to an educatedpublic.
This is but one of a few striking findings in the survey. What standsout most is what a poor job of scientists and the media are doingcommunicating 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 climatescience (thanks for being here, dear reader!), but researchers and themedia also have an obligation to make climate news more accessible. Weneed more than 11% of the population to be well-informed if we’re tocraft realistic solutions.
Also interesting, 39% of people believe most scientists think globalwarming is happening while 38% believe there’s a lot of disagreementbetween 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 theevidence 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 owned98% of a business but your less-knowledgeable partner with only twopercent had as much sway as you. It’s a ridiculous way to approachbusiness and a ridiculous way to present such an important issue.
The report also has a bit of a bad news about our understanding of thecauses and effects of climate change. A large majority of surveyrespondents believe reducing toxic waste will reduce global warming. Ifonly that were true. While there would certainly be local benefits, itwould have zero impact on reducing the effects of climate change.
In addition, the survey asked questions about glaciers and oceans. Mostrespondents were unable to indentify that most glaciers in the world are melting or that thermal expansion and not melting sea ice is what iscausing most sea level rise. I can see how these are difficult questions to answer, but it once again indicates a huge gap between the publicand the scientific community.
So the question is how to bridge that gap. The Yale survey has someanswers. First, it means talking about climate change in schools.Luckily, 75% of respondents want to have the subject taught in schoolsand 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 fromtelevision, 72% from the newspaper, and 64% from the internet. This isunfortunate 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 betheir first stop to learn more about climate change.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Pew Center Project for Excellence inJournalism has shown that global warming gets much more coverage in theblogosphere and through social media like Twitter than in traditionalmedia. That means legitimate, knowledgeable voices are need more thanever in this realm if the public is to better understand the science and the policy prescriptions. And based on the findings in the survey, wehave a long way to go.