Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, has just released a new report entitled Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in January 2010 (PDF). As summary, the report finds the following:
The percentage of Americans who think global warming is happening has declined 14 points, to 57 percent.
The percentage of Americans who think global warming is caused mostly by human activities has dropped 10 points, to 47 percent.
Only 50 percent of Americans now say they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about global warming, a 13-point decrease.
In line with these shifting beliefs, there has been an increase in the number of Americans who think global warming will never harm people or other species in the United States or elsewhere.
The survey also found lower public trust in a variety of institutions and leaders, including scientists. For example, Americans’ trust in the mainstream news media as a reliable source of information about global warming declined by 11 percentage points, television weather reporters by 10 points and scientists by 8 points. They also distrust leaders on both sides of the political fence. Sixty-five percent distrust Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sarah Palin as sources of information, while 53 percent distrust former Democratic Vice President Al Gore and 49 percent distrust President Barack Obama.
Finally, Americans who believe that most scientists think global warming is happening decreased 13 points, to 34 percent, while 40 percent of the public now believes there is a lot of disagreement among scientists over whether global warming is happening or not.
Despite growing scientific evidence that global warming will have serious impacts worldwide, public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. Over the past year the United States has experienced rising unemployment, public frustration with Washington and a divisive health care debate, largely pushing climate change out of the news. Meanwhile, a set of emails stolen from climate scientists and used by critics to allege scientific misconduct may have contributed to an erosion of public trust in climate science.
It is also clear that public understanding of climate change fundamentals – that it is happening, is human caused, and will have serious consequences for human societies and natural ecosystems here in the United States and around the world – is heading in the wrong direction. These findings underscore the critical need for more and improved climate change education and communication.
That last sentence is worth reiterating: “These findings underscore the critical need for more and improved climate change education and communication.”
We have spent billions in the US on climate research but until recently very little (especially in comparison to research dollars) on educating students, teachers, citizens, people within agencies about the basics of climate and human impacts on the climate system. It is no wonder our societal appreciation for (and ability to respond to and prepare for) global change in all its myriad manifestations is lacking if not missing in action.
In the “war” of words, the small but determined group who are dismissive that humans can impact the Earth’s climate and/or that the Earth is warming seem to be scoring points, as the Yale study reveals. The findings are a major reality check on our societal climate literacy: if our collective understanding of climate in general and global change in particular is so easily dislodged or manipulated, then the understanding was clearly shallow to begin with. Recent media “controversies” such as Climategate (aka the Climate Research Unit hacking incident,) the flawed IPCC Himalayan Glacier data, and “The End of Magical Climate Thinking” that may be an emergent property from widespread disappointment about COP15 in Copenhagen make it clear that the challenges of fostering a truly climate literate, energy aware, science savvy society are daunting in the extreme.
Scientific literacy is part of the issue, something that former astronaut Walter Cunningham points out in a recent article where he notes an NSF survey found 25 percent of Americans did not know the Earth revolves around the sun. But Cunningham, writing on the Heartland Institute website, is dismissive of the robust and well documented evidence that humans are impacting the Earth’s climate system.
There is a war going on between those who believe human activities are responsible for global warming and those who don’t. Contrary to the way the debate is often framed by the media, those who believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW) do not hold the high ground, scientifically. Their critics do.
Claiming that the lack of scientific literacy is the cause of public confusion about AGW, he writes:
Such widespread ignorance leaves our society vulnerable to the emotional appeal of AGW alarmists. Among AGW true believers, advocacy has replaced objective evaluation of data, and scientific data–regardless of the authority of its source or importance in the debate– are ignored and suppressed, or the messengers are attacked.
While it is easy to dismiss Cunningham’s attack, the fact is that in some cases efforts to push/advocate for a particular policy or an international treaty have indeed replaced objective evaluation of data, and in some cases the messengers of honest critique about the science have been ignored by what some call the climate oligarchy. That said, the evidence is overwhelming: the Earth is warming (2009 was the second warmest year on record and the past decade was the warmest since detailed records were begun in 1880) and human activities are the primary cause.
According to the 2009 Ocean Project survey, young people more than adults get this. The findings show that teenagers by large margins (between ~70 and 80%) felt that global warming was the biggest threat to the United States and that personal responsibility toward the environment was crucial (between roughly 75% and 85%). The survey also found that the older the respondent, the less global warming was viewed as a problem, with personal responsibility also dropping significantly with age.
Clearly the issue of global change is not simply a matter of scientific literacy, nor, for that matter, policy or political solutions. Mardi Tindal, writing to her community of faith in a post entitled “Where is the Hope After Copgenhagen?” notes:
Science has shown us that we have caused the chemical changes we can now track in the atmosphere and the ocean. Therefore, because climate change has been caused by our actions, we are ethically obliged to take responsibility for those actions.
I believe the ecological crisis is one of the most urgent moral challenges in human history. Just as racial segregation and discrimination, and before that slavery, were in their times. Responding to this moral challenge lies with us, and the time is now….
That is why I believe we must look at issues through the lens of morality and faith. Science describes what is. Faith describes how things can and should be. On this issue science is not enough. We need more. And that is why ecological issues are also fundamentally moral, ethical, and theological concerns. And, therefore, why faith leaders must grapple with them. Why we all must grapple with them.
Because when our actions threaten the lives of millions of people and other creatures, that is wrong.
When our lack of action endangers communities in every region of the world, that is wrong.
When our economic systems jeopardize the well-being of future generations, that is wrong.
When the lifestyles of the wealthy undermine the survival of the poor, that is wrong.
If we fail to act, we are helping to doom millions of our species to abject suffering and death. That is wrong.