Americans Know Nothing About Climate Change

19 October 2010

A new survey of 2,030 American adults (weighted according to demographics and political party allegiance) confirms what previous surveys have suggested: that the American public’s understanding of climate change is dismal. The researchers graded the participants based on percentage of questions answered correctly (although some questions were harder than others). A majority, 52%, received an F. 25% got a D, 15% a C, 7% a B, and only 1% got an A.

I am not aware of any similar surveys of Australians — I hope we are not quite as bad, but there is a powerful climate change denial lobby here too. For context, it’s not just climate science about which Americans are ignorant; it is part of a larger problem of general scientific ignorance. Surveys have consistently found that about 40% of Americans think the Earth is only a few thousand years old; about 20% do not know that a year is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

The results are pretty depressing considering that the US is a democracy:

  • Only 63% of Americans say global warming is happening. 19% think not, and 19% are not sure.
  • Only 50% say humans are the main cause of the current warming (compared to roughly 97% of publishing climatologists). 35% say natural changes are the main cause.
  • Only 39% say that most scientists agree global warming is happening; 38% think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists. (Clearly the contrarian line of “no scientific consensus” is working.)

What Greenhouse Effect?

  • 13% of Americans have never even heard of the greenhouse effect! (Where on Earth have they been for the last 30 years? On the Moon?)
  • Of those who have heard of it, only 66% know that it refers to heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. 21% think it refers to the ozone layer.
  • Only 45% understand that carbon dioxide is a heat-trapping gas, compared to only 25% for methane and just 12% for water vapor. (You’d think they’d at least know that water vapor is a greenhouse gas given how much the contrarians go on about it.)
  • More encouragingly, 82% of Americans understand that greenhouse gases affect the Earth’s temperature. Majorities correctly say that so do orbital changes, volcanic eruptions, solar activity, and albedo. Unfortunately, 53% believe the same about earthquakes, and 44% about the phases of the moon. (Does that make them lunatics?)
  • Americans believe a whole laundry list of unlikely things contribute to global warming, including volcanic eruptions (which actually cause global cooling), the hole in the ozone layer, nuclear power stations, acid rain, toxic wastes, and the space program. (Perhaps they think NASA accidentally started global warming when it faked the Moon landing?)
  • 43% of Americans believe that if we “stop punching holes in the ozone layer with rockets”, it would reduce global warming. I am not making this up.

Americans Have No Sense of Proportion

  • 55% of Americans believe the Earth’s climate is warmer than ever before. 10% think it is colder than ever before. (There’s a twisted sort of logic to this when you remember that 40% believe the Earth is only a few thousand years old.)
  • In a rare piece of good news, 41% of Americans know the climate of the last 10,000 years has been relatively stable compared to the past million years.
  • 33% of Americans believe that past climate change means that humans are not causing global warming. (I wonder if they also believe that because bushfires were started by lightning strikes in the past, they cannot now be lit by humans.)
  • When asked what was the average global surface temperature during the last ice age, compared to 58°F (14°C) today, the answers were spread over an unbelievably large range, with apparently some estimates beyond –100°F and +100°F. (Hopefully these are the sort of people who identify themselves as Jedis.) The median answer was 32°F, and there was another peak at 0°F. (The correct answer? 46-51°F or 8-11°C.)
  • When asked how much the world would warm by 2020, the median answer was 2°F. Some predicted a global warming of 40°F. (The correct answer is more like 0.4°F or 0.2°C.)

Whether the Weather is Climate

  • 33% of Americans wrongly believe that climate and weather are pretty much the same thing.
  • 74% rightly say that climate is the average of weather. I was momentarily impressed, until I noticed that 51% say weather is the average of climate — that’s an overlap of at least 25%. (Do they believe weather is the average of the average of itself? The mind boggles.)
  • 21% of Americans think that climate change is completely random and unpredictable. (Haven’t they ever heard of seasons? Oh yeah, about 20% of Americans don’t know a year is the time it takes for the Earth to go around the Sun. It’s all making sense now.)
  • 18% of Americans believe recent snowstorms disprove global warming; 24% answered “don’t know” to this question.
  • 15% believe the Earth is cooling; another 33% don’t know.

Fuzzy About Fossils, Confused About Carbon

  • Only 60% of Americans know natural gas is a fossil fuel. 28% believe that wood is a fossil fuel! (If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, is it then fossilized?)
  • 47% of Americans believe that fossil fuels come from fossilized dinosaurs! (From when dinosaurs were living alongside humans, I suppose.)
  • 67% know burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • A mere 7% of Americans could correctly identify the current CO2 level (390 ppm), and only 6% the level in 1850 (290 ppm). Most people said they didn’t know the answer to either question.
  • 62% of Americans understand that if humans stopped burning fossil fuels then global warming would not immediately stop (unfortunately, most of them probably didn’t believe we were causing global warming in the first place). 37% think that CO2 levels would immediately decrease, and only 19% realise CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years.
  • 18% believe the country with the highest per capita CO2 emissions is China! (It’s official: Americans are innumerate.)

Ignorant About Impacts

  • 32% wrongly believe global warming means roughly the same warming in all countries.
  • 68% understand that global warming makes some regions wetter and some drier.
  • Majorities of 60-76% understand that melting ice sheets, melting glaciers, and warming oceans cause sea level rise. However, 76% believe that Arctic sea ice melt also causes sea level rise, and 34% even believe it is the main cause.
  • Only 23% have ever heard of ocean acidification. (This doesn’t surprise me since ocean acidification gets a lot less media coverage.)

Misled by Media

  • Interestingly, the most trusted source of information about global warming is NOAA, trusted by 78% of Americans.
  • Amazingly, the number of Americans who trust science documentaries, 72%, is the same as the number who trust scientists. (This is unfortunate, because the documentary format is such that only a highly selective set of information can be presented in the available time, so it’s easy to make a documentary arguing for any crackpot theory.)
  • 50% of Americans trust TV weather reporters about the issue, and 42% trust military leaders!
  • The least trusted is the mainstream news media at just 33%.
  • 88% of Americans get most of their knowledge about global warming from watching TV!
  • 39% of Americans say they follow environment news closely. (I find this difficult to believe.)
  • 15% of Americans say they do not think about global warming at all. (I find this very easy to believe.)
  • 75% say schools should teach children about climate change, and 68% would welcome a national program to teach Americans about the issue.

In writing the above I couldn’t help but make fun of the American public’s ignorance; it’s my way of coping. But I realise that sneering at the public will not solve anything. The last two results I mentioned suggest that Americans’ ignorance is not willful; their educational system and their media have let them down.

I find it ironic that although most Americans distrust the media as a source of information about climate change, public opinion reflects media coverage of the issue: people are confused about climate science, doubtful about global warming, and have the impression that scientists disagree about it all. I wish that editors and producers — and most of all Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire is promoting denialist misinformation across continental borders — would stop and think for a moment about what they are doing. They could be jeopardizing the future of the planet.

One comment

  1. I think the piece about “stop punching holes in the ozone layer” says it all!

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