Overall, we found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 40 percent would receive a C or D, and 52 percent would get an F. 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% know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
- 50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities;
- 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;
- 25% 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.
But, is this something to really be concerned about? These findings aren't tremendously different from other 'tests' of public knowledge that find, for example, 48% of American youth can't locate Mississippi on a map of the US while 75% can't locate Israel on a map of the Middle East. And, moreover, I don't think it realistic to expect the general public to be informed about the technical details of every issue. The world is too complex, the mediascape too uncooperative, and there are too many competing pressures on individuals (like paying the mortgage) for an effective governance strategy to be based on a general public knowledgeable about the technical details of highly complex issues.
Stated another way, the public is diverse and only a small segment are interested in understanding the science. But this doesn't stop them from having opinions. And, as Mike Hulme notes in the Guardian, the events of the past year have had a major effect on the ecology of public opinion on climate change:
There has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of "here's the consensus science, now let's make climate policy" has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: "What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?" The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.
The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can't be homogenised through appeals to science. Those actors who have long favoured a linear connection between climate science and climate policy – spanning environmentalists, contrarians and some scientists and politicians – have been forced to rethink. It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof.
This leads to the second, and to me more interesting, study conducted by the Yale group: The Six Americas Study. This study identifies six different responses among Americans to the politics of climate change, ranging from individuals who are intensely concerned about the issue and motivated to do something to those who are dismissive of the problem and unmotivated to do anything to address the issue. The following video (starting at about the one minute mark) describes the key characteristics of each group.
As shown below, they have tracked the size of the 6 groups through time. While 18 months isn't a lot of time, there are a couple of interesting and discernible trends. First, there is a general consistency in opinions through time. The area of the different groups remains about the same and, in particular, the "concerned" (those who think climate change is happening, but its effects probably won't be felt for a generation) and the "cautious" (those who wonder whether or not climate change is real or whether humans are responsible) remain the two largest groups throughout.
Second, the January 2010 survey, taken immediately after the collapse of Copenhagen and in the midst of the 'climategate' scandal, is the profile that differs most from the other two. The media attention during that period seems to have engaged a significant proportion of the 'disengaged' (leading to a decline in their numbers) while at the same time driving up the number of 'dismissives' and reducing the number of 'alarmed' Americans.
Third, the 'doubtful' group appears to have been the least affected by the period of contention in December 2009 as their percentage remains essentially constant throughout. These are people who have an opinion, but aren't really engaged (I don't think it is real, but if it is it's a natural phenomenon and I don't need to worry about it.) In that sense, they are more isolated and less affected by the dynamics of the debate than the 'disengaged.'
Finally, the net effect of the events of December 2009 (i.e., a comparison of the November 2008 and June 2010 data) shows little overall change in the number of 'doubtful' and 'disengaged'. What we see is a 5% decline in the number of 'alarmed' and 'concerned' and corresponding 5% rises in the number of 'cautious' and 'dismissives'.