The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has just released a report on American Teens’ Knowledge of Climate Change. The results, while sobering, help establish a baseline against which we can start to measure whether current climate change education efforts are starting to make some headway toward a more climate science savvy society. Tony Leiserowitz, who is one of the Principle Investigators, summed up the survey results in a recent email:
Overall, we found that 54 percent of American teens believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 6 percent of teens have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 41 percent would receive a C or D, and 54 percent would get an F. Overall, teens know about the same or less about climate change than adults. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system.
These misconceptions lead some teens 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 teens lack some of the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about climate change both now and in the future as students, workers, consumers, homeowners, and citizens.
(The Energy Literacy research being conducted by Jan DeWaters and Susan Powers at Clarkson University shows similar gaps, lack of knowledge and failing grades around energy topics with teens and adults.)
The Yale study indicates that while teens are generally less concerned about global warming than adults,
American teens have a better understanding than adults on a few important measures. For example:
· 57% of teens understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, compared to 50% of adults;
· 77% of teens understand that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat, compared to 66% of adults;
· 52% of teens understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface, compared to 45% of adults;
· 71% of teens understand that carbon dioxide is produced by the burning of fossil fuels, compared to 67% of adults.
But the survey results, from a total of 517 teens (13-17 years old,) suggest teens also recognize the limits of their understanding.
American teens also recognize their limited understanding of the issue. Fewer than 1 in 5 say they are “very well informed” about how the climate system works or the different causes, consequences, or potential solutions to global warming, and only 27 percent say they have learned “a lot” about the issue in school.
Importantly, 70 percent of teens say they would like to know more about global warming. Likewise, 75 percent say that schools should teach our children about climate change. Finally, teens are much more likely than adults to visit zoos, aquariums, natural history, science or technology museums than adults, suggesting that informal education venues are important places for teens (and adults) to learn about complex issues like climate change.
This survey (which I played a small role in developing questions for) suggests much less interest in and knowledge about climate change among youth than the 2008 and 2009 Ocean Project survey, which posed the question: Are certain segments of the public more interested in climate change than others?
Yes, youth are much more concerned. While more than 80% of Americans now self identify as either an “active participant” (22%) or “sympathetic to” (59%) the environmental movement, these numbers are strongest for those between the ages of 12 and 17. On the specific question of confronting the challenge of climate change, approximately 75% of those under 20 said this was a top priority, while only 50% of those over 65 said the same. Moreover, the research indicated that parents look to their teens and tweens for guidance on environmental issues.
The results of the full survey, which interviewed over 22,000 Americans including teens, are available here. The survey indicated in the vast majority of households with teens, they are becoming opinion leaders in their households, with strongly held attitudes (+80%, substantially more than any other age group) that personal responsibility toward the environment is important.
Incidentally, the Ocean Project has researched Youth in Action: Motivating Teens and Tweens to Protect the Ocean, looking at the potential for tapping social media tools to engage teens.
Why the two surveys had such substantially different results may have a little to do with the timing and perhaps more to do with the questions asked and how they were framed. Nevertheless, a closer look at why these studies seem to support divergent conclusions is needed.
On a somewhat related tangent, in his insightful article in Mother Jones entitled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” Chris Mooney describes a topsy-turvy world that sounds more like Alice in Wonderland than a rational, 21st Century society where enlightened thought and evidence rule the day.
If you wanted to show how and why fact is ditched in favor of motivated reasoning, you could find no better test case than climate change. After all, it’s an issue where you have highly technical information on one hand and very strong beliefs on the other. And sure enough, one key predictor of whether you accept the science of global warming is whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. The two groups have been growing more divided in their views about the topic, even as the science becomes more unequivocal.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that more education doesn’t budge Republican views. On the contrary: In a 2008 Pew survey, for instance, only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college educated Republicans. In other words, a higher education correlated with an increased likelihood of denying the science on the issue. Meanwhile, among Democrats and independents, more education correlated with greater acceptance of the science.
Examining social science research on a wide range of topics ranging from evolution to WMD in Iraq, Mooney points out what many social scientists have observed for decades: humans tilt toward thoughts that are in sync with previous beliefs, and then build arguments to challenge new ideas.
In other words, when we think we’re reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers (PDF). Our “reasoning” is a means to a predetermined end—winning our “case”—and is shot through with biases. They include “confirmation bias,” in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and “disconfirmation bias,” in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.
Which takes us back to teens and the fact that they are open to admitting that they don’t know about many aspects of climate (and energy.) Rather than arguing opinions, which tends to be the way adults “debate” issues, whether scientific or political, teens may be more open to “teachable moments” if they are presented with them in an engaging way and relevant context.