Americans Flunk Global Warming

By Chris Mooney | October 15, 2010 8:58 am

Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale has new data out on the public and its bizarre and troubling relationship with climate science. To quote some of the findings:

* 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.

I’ve actually heard this ozone hole misconception with some frequency when talking with people about global warming.

Leiserowitz goes on to grade our countrymen and -women on their climate science scores: “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.”

Think of it this way: Maybe in 20 years those scores will be a bit higher (or maybe not)–but the planet may be cooked by then.

Comments (34)

  1. Of course Americans don’t want to be “graded” again about science as adults (especially to learn they are flunking). But the point is that information we desperately need to move toward solutions to our greatest challenges is being filtered, diluted, and most of all miscommunicated–primarily because the environment has become such a politically and at times, religiously charged issue.

    My hope is that in the next round of surveys, more people do understand, or at least, have heard of ocean acidification.

  2. Jon

    If a change comes, it’s probably going to come from elites who will then get the public on board. For instance, this is something, anyway:

    http://www.frumforum.com/the-right-warms-up-to-a-carbon-tax

    And after reading something like this, I wonder when we’re going to start seeing tariffs on our carbon-heavy exports:

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/10/the-gops-war-with-climate-science.html

  3. Disappointed, yes. But surprised by this result? No. It testifies to (1) the overall poor science literacy of Americans in general and (2) the deliberate campaign of obfuscation and misinformation promulgated by those with an interest in the status quo.

    For me the big surprise is that media-hungry Americans can’t be oblivious to the NEWS… that is, factual information that reports on environmental degradation, weather extremes and so on. But evidently, they aren’t asking questions. What is causing annual record highs in global temperature? Why are hurricanes increasingly frequent and severe? Why are glaciers worldwide melting at record rates? Why has the Arctic icecap shrunk to record summer minimums?

    Lack of asking why, rather than simply accepting explanations might explain why Americans are not making the connection between global warming and its causes thereof. Maybe the problem is not so much a lack of factual data among Americans, but their diminished capacity to ask meaningful questions concerning the world around them.

    Science communicators focus on getting information in the hands of the public. Maybe we should shift the emphasis and just get people to start asking why and how things are the way they are.

  4. Eric

    You mean “Maybe in 20 years those scores will be a bit higher (or maybe not)–but the planet may be cooked” BY THEM…

  5. FUAG

    “50 % of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities”

    Which half it correct? At this point nobody can say with any certainty that it’s “mostly” caused by human activity. There is just no absolute science to support that statement, it’s merely opinion. The earth has warmed many times without us around, so how can we discern what portion of current warming is due to us?

    If the question was “Do humans contribute to global warming?” you would have a more accurate representation of people’s understanding.

  6. David Yates

    Because climate change is such a complex subject most people feel there is nothing they can do and they ignore the issue. To the average person clean air, water and other climate issues are the domain of government. They will obey the law if “someone” passes one. Unfortunately, “someone” is in the pocket of those who have vested interest in polluting and ruining the environment. This is why the climate crisis (and the financial crisis and the terrorism crisis, etc.) will likely only be solved by mass extinction. The Earth will eventually rid itself of us. The law of nature is a process we seem to have chosen to solve our problem. Have a nice day.

  7. Brian D

    My grandmother used the “rockets punching holes in the ozone causing global warming” line on me a while back (though admittedly to express her dislike of the space program…). I had written it off as “she’s old and has never really been scientific”. To see (from the source PDF) that this is a belief held by 43% of Americans is downright depressing.

    Shorter FUAG: Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, people die all the time, in the past, for all sorts of reasons, therefore this man with a bullet hole in his head couldn’t have been murdered.

  8. FUAG

    Brian D: Your analogy is flawed on two counts:

    1. A bullet hole in the head IS concrete scientific evidence.

    2. Using your analogy correctly to correlate the GW debate would be to say “This man has a bullet hole in his head, thus we can say with 100% certainty that he was murdered.”

  9. Jon

    As if there were no concrete scientific evidence: http://www.tinyurl.com/heatisonline

  10. It’s a sad fact that stupid people truly believe that they are as smart or smarter than highly intelligent people. Therein lies their stupidity.

    I’ll give you an example:

    Attacking the dignity of highly regarded scientific organizations is considered good politics on the conservative side of the political spectrum in the United States. Basically, the Republican Party has been trying to convince everybody that the most reputable scientists and scientific organizations in the world are all either corrupt or stupid.

    And why are Republicans doing this?

    Because not a single reputable scientific organization in the world, or reputable scientist for that matter, thinks that man-made global warming is a myth, or that global warming and climate change aren’t very serious problems that require immediate attention.

    So far, the only group of people in the world to display grotesque arrogance and lack of respect for scientific organizations are the Young-Earth Creationists. YEC’s believe the earth is only 6000 years old when in fact about 40 different lines of scientific evidence all corroborate each other and prove that it’s closer to 4.5 billion years old. As far as the science goes, these people are off by a factor of 750,000 to 1. It’s like asking someone how far they think the moon is from the earth and they tell you it’s 3 miles away.

    What’s even more funny is that these people will argue until the cows come home that the science backs them up.

    The Republican party is inundated with Young-Earth-Creationists who abhor science. Many of them think we should let the earth fall into ruin because then Jesus will come back. Many of them also believe that rules to protect the environment aren’t just wrong, but, evil. These people have an exaggerated faith in everything from a 6000 year old earth to the ability of unfettered laissez-faire or free market economic views or policies to solve economic and social problems.

    The common thread between free market fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism stood out like a sore thumb in America’s 2004 national election.

    The American National Exit Poll (NEP) of 2004 included a measure of evangelical identification. Voters were asked the following question:

    “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?” [Yes, No]

    Of those who answered Yes, 79% voted for Bush.

    If you care at all about what the smartest people on the planet think, read:

    Talent and Taste

    http://harryhammer.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/talent-and-taste/

    The Edison of Our Age

    https://harryhammer.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/the-edison-of-our-age/

    The Highest IQ in the World

    https://harryhammer.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/the-highest-iq-in-the-world/

  11. FUAG

    Jon, you are off topic. I have no doubt that humans have SOME affect on global warming.

    The question was about the percentage of the current warming trend that can be attributed to human activity. I argue that the statement “mostly by human activities” is not a fact thus makes the question ambiguous. (ie: If someone thought it was caused 49% by human activity they would answer no. Thus, in the eyes of the inquirer, they would be wrong.)

    The link you provided talks about “discernible human influence” not “mostly human influence.”

    On a side note: These few posts really point out the problem with the Global Warming debate. People in the center, that can see truths on both sides of the argument, get pummeled by the more passionate people that make of the fringes on both sides. My posts are simply stating that the science doesn’t lead us to any single concrete answer. The answer is nebulous thus up for debate. If you think we have global warming figured out 100% then you are as crazy as people that deny any human influence on Global Warming.

  12. Nick

    @FUAG: I agree with what you’ve said. As well, in my experience, I have found the latter portion (the “side note”) as being particularly profound. There is so much passion that it blinds the true science: what we know and what we don’t know. What we should theorize from the data is what we don’t know but consider to be true.

  13. Vince

    FUAG seems to have the right of things. I too am willing to listen to and judge rational debate on the subject of global warming. So far there has been none to be had on either side of the issue (or at least not from the people who want money to address it). I too so the flaws in the questions as they were written, but do not expect anyone who has drank the GW kool-aid to take my reservations seriously. Therefore, I will remain on the side of taking no action until there is proof that action is necessary, that the proposed action is efficacious, and that the proposed action is no worse than the consequence of taking no action. So far none of the strategies proposed have passed this test for me. Perhaps others are willing to slap a $50 trillion (actual) bandage on a $3 trillion (potential) problem, with no idea whether or not it will do any good, but I don’t see how that helps anything. You people lost me with “the end is near”!

  14. Joan

    Unfortunately, the current American culture encourages its citizens to take sides rather than make decisions. Critical thinking has been replaced with sloganeering.

  15. anon

    Well you just spend the last few years telling them that Climate Change has nothing to do with warming and now you get mad when people can’t associate the two?

  16. Regarding the #2 comment on “elites” – Who are they? Many of the people I know that understand climate change and are working to reduce CO2, etc. are not very elite. Just regular folks who like the planet, enjoy nature, hiking, fishing, hunting, and so forth. They are paying attention, doing their homework and trying to be part of the solution.

    Jay Kimball
    8020 Vision

  17. Sundance

    Here is one of the test questions with the answer they deem correct.

    • Scientists’ computer models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future [false]

    The way that Yale researchers posed this question makes it meaningless because an unreliable model can still predict the future, but there would be a higher probability that the prediction would be wrong. The question should have been:

    Scientists’ computer models are too unreliable to predict the climate of the future with certainty true or false?

    In the concluding remarks of The Royal Society’s new summary of climate change they state in their concluding remarks:

    58 It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future, but careful estimates of potential changes and associated uncertainties have been made. Scientists continue to work to narrow these areas of uncertainty.

    So the correct view which has eluded the Yale researchers is that future predictions by models can only be made with uncertainty. This is just one of several ambiguous questions I found in the survey.

  18. I think we ought to look at this survey in a larger context:

    http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2010/10/15/the-land-of-stupid/

    Chris, Sheril, as the authors of Unscientific America, surely you are not least the bit shocked by this latest data.

  19. Dan Pangburn

    Global warming has stopped. Objective application of science and engineering reveals the significant sources that produced the temperature trends since 1895 including the temperature run-up late in the 20th century and the flat temperatures since. The predictions, by some in the Climate Science Community, of future warming (4C° by 2100) are based on meaningless computer output. Without human-caused global warming there can be no human-caused climate change or human-caused Global Climate Disruption.

    Research, with findings regarding measured and projected temperature trends is reported at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true. The 6/27/10 pdf there presents a rational equation that accurately calculates the average global temperatures since 1895 with a coefficient of determination of 0.88. That means that it explains 88% of the measured temperatures for 114 years and counting. The best that GCMs have done is significantly less than this. The equation shows that CO2 is a minor (about 20%) contributor to the measured increase in average global temperature and predicts that the future trend of average global temperatures will be down. The above link and sub links, including links to the temperature data reported by the five reporting agencies, track the data back to the published credible sources. The work can be verified by anyone competent with a spreadsheet.

    From 2001 through August 2010 the atmospheric CO2 increased by 21% of the total increase from 1800 to 2001 while the average global temperature has not increased significantly and the trend of yearly averages from 2001 through 2009 is down. The El Nino that made early 2010 appear to be a bit warmer than the down trend, peaked in March, 2010 and average global temperature is now declining.

    This El Niño warmed the air enough for NOAA to announce the warmest ever period. They failed to say that ‘ever’ includes only the last 130 years or so. They also failed to mention that their new record was only 0.02C higher than their previous record. A more correct announcement would have been that average global temperature has not changed significantly for over a decade.

  20. Interesting discussion. I would make two points. (1) The data irrefutably show that temperature anomalies from the global average are increasing, not decreasing or staying the same. That is, global temperatures are definitely increasing (@Dan Pangburn, you do not state your source for your claim “average global temperature has not increased significantly” ). Here is the data: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/instrumental.html

    (2) To people like @Vince who say they will stay “on the side of taking no action until there is proof that action is necessary” I would ask them, what is the cost of inaction if global warming is actually happening as opposed to the risk if it is? If global warming is happening, the risk of inaction is catastrophic global climate disruption. If global warming is not happening, the cost of action is taking a few measures in our personal lifestyles such as driving higher gas mileage car, recycling more often, adopt renewable energy policies, etc. The point is that if we choose to remain selfishly welded to our high consumption lifestyles we are risking far more than if we adopt a few relatively simple low cost or no cost changes.

  21. Dan Pangburn

    I monitor all five reporting agencies and they agree fairly well as graphed on page 9 of the pdf made public 4/10/10 at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true. As can be seen the average global temperature trend since 2001 is down.
    The agt anomalies (no offsets) averaged for each year for the five agencies are as follows.
    YEAR AVG
    1998 0.55
    1999 0.23
    2000 0.22
    2001 0.37
    2002 0.45
    2003 0.44
    2004 0.38
    2005 0.48
    2006 0.41
    2007 0.42
    2008 0.28
    2009 0.42

    The data can be verified using the following links to the five agencies:

    NOAA
    ftp://ftp.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/anomalies/monthly.land_ocean.90S.90N.df_1901-2000mean.dat

    Hadley
    http://www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/data/temperature/hadcrut3gl.txt

    GISS
    http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt

    RSS
    http://www1.ncdc.noaa.gov/pub/data/cmb/temp-and-precip/upper-air/rss_monthly_msu_amsu_channel_tlt_anomalies_land_and_ocean.txt

    UAH
    http://vortex.nsstc.uah.edu/data/msu/t2lt/uahncdc.lt

    The CO2 data is:
    1800, 281.2 ppmv; 2001, 371.1; Dec 2009, 387.3 The data for 1800 can be obtained from
    http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ftp/trends/co2/siple2.013 The recent data is from Mauna Loa at
    ftp://ftp.cmdl.noaa.gov/ccg/co2/trends/co2_mm_mlo.txt

    Some of the links in the CR stuff have gone stale. The above links work on 10/16/10.

  22. Sundance

    @#22 Roger

    Roger am I hearing you right that you believe that catastrophic climate disruption will cease to be a threat if we just reverse our high consumption lifestyle? What would give you such an idea?

    Making lifestyle changes will do nothing to prevent naturally occurring catastrophic global climate disruption. History teaches us that catastrophic climate disruption is a fact of life regardless of CO2 levels and has already destroyed large populations of humans via crop failures, famine, disease, etc. For instance mitigation of CO2 will not protect us from future climate disasters and if you are serious about a precautionary strategy it needs to be comprehensive and include consideration of the natural catastrophic climate disruptions that will still occur even if CO2 is reduced to 350PPM. The only way to do that is to channel our limited supply of money and resources into disaster preparation and adaptation strategies.

    For example how would lifestyle changes have stopped a CAT5 hurricane from causing a breach in New Orleans levees? I would submit that money spent on much stronger levees would be the proper course of action not lifestyle changes. Our choice today is no different. NYC was under 90 feet of water 110,000 years ago and it will be again even if we keep CO2 levels at 350PPM by reducing consumption. Reduced consumption is not a serious solution at all.

  23. @#24 Sundance I am not saying that reduced consumption is THE solution. Only it is part of a suite of strategies. Of course, mitigation and adaptation are also essential if we are not going to end up back in the Stone Age or worse.

  24. Jon

    Dan Pangburn: As can be seen the average global temperature trend since 2001 is down.

    As if that’s serious statistics. Say a baseball player hit a career high of 70 home runs in 2001, and hit between 67-69 each year after that, and had an average of 20 for the preceding years. Does that mean in 2010 his average is “down”?

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, sounds like lies, damned lies and statistics to me…

  25. Mary

    As a meteorologist, I love to hear people discuss the issue. The issue is complex and people are generally clueless. Frankly, there is no hope of educating the public on this.

    However, there is huge disagreement within the scientific community about the complexities and severity of climate change. Unfortunately, there is a concerted effort to say things like
    …”all scientists agree”
    …”skeptics are no different than the flat earth society”
    …”scientists who disagree are all paid off by the energy industry”

    The reality is there are many scientists such as myself who are very skeptical of climate change disaster scenarios. I’m not paid by anybody, I’m not religious or Republican or a stooge of the energy industry. But I’m sickened by the state of the science.

    I’m appalled at the scientific ignorance on all sides of the debate including from climate scientists who seem to have lost sight of the fact that a good scientist is a skeptical scientist.

  26. Mary

    I like my high consumption lifestyle. I get to drive a car, eat great food, fly around the world, get fixed by advanced medical technologies, visit my mom, relax in a hot tub and a million other things that require carbon burning. 100 years ago, these amazing benefits were not existent and life was short and brutal for most folks. Billions of people have been lifted out of poverty and suffering as a direct result of the spread of fossil fuel use and capitalism.

    All these wonderful things and the earth has warmed just 0.6 deg since the onset of significant carbon fuel burning.. SOME of that warming is likely due to humans but no one knows how much.

    Humans advance. There are side effects. We discover them and try to mitigate them. We debate the costs and benefits. People disagree. This is normal. This is good. This is human progress. Take a moment and listen to informed people who disagree with you.

    As a meteorologist with a child who will likely live to the year 2100, I’m not at all concerned about climate change ruining her future. But I’m closely following the science and will change my mind if the facts warrant.

  27. Nullius in Verba

    Mary,

    Well said!

    The only thing I might quibble with is the idea that that there is no hope of educating the public. A segment of the public can be educated, and a far better job could be done with the rest than is done now.

    The basic problem, in my view, is that scientists have for so long said “the public could never understand” and have therefore simplified and distorted, and “dumbed down”, that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is so long since the public saw real science that they no longer understand what it is, and would indeed struggle to catch up. Science has been replaced with ‘scientific authority’ – an oxymoron if ever there was – as scientists, struggling to meet journalists’ demands for simplicity and drama, substituted assertion for explanation. A new generation has grown up believing that scientific thinking consists of believing what the experts say.

    It’s not irreparable, given time and effort, but it’s not even recognised as a problem yet.

  28. Nullius in Verba

    Did my last comment end up in the spam box?

  29. @#22 Roger

    Roger am I hearing you right that you believe that catastrophic climate disruption will cease to be a threat if we just reverse our high consumption lifestyle? What would give you such an idea?

    Making lifestyle changes will do nothing to prevent naturally occurring catastrophic global climate disruption. History teaches us that catastrophic climate disruption is a fact of life regardless of CO2 levels and has already destroyed large populations of humans via crop failures, famine, disease, etc. For instance mitigation of CO2 will not protect us from future climate disasters and if you are serious about a precautionary strategy it needs to be comprehensive and include consideration of the natural catastrophic climate disruptions that will still occur even if CO2 is reduced to 350PPM. The only way to do that is to channel our limited supply of money and resources into disaster preparation and adaptation strategies.

    For example how would lifestyle changes have stopped a CAT5 hurricane from causing a breach in New Orleans levees? I would submit that money spent on much stronger levees would be the proper course of action not lifestyle changes. Our choice today is no different. NYC was under 90 feet of water 110,000 years ago and it will be again even if we keep CO2 levels at 350PPM by reducing consumption. Reduced consumption is not a serious solution at all.

  30. Dan Pangburn

    Jon,

    The elapsed time is not what is important. The significance is that the CO2 has increased 21% while the temperature shows no sign of significant increase. Trenberth considers it a travesty that they can not explain this separation.

    As the atmospheric CO2 continues to increase and the average global temperature does not some people may begin to wonder if maybe they missed something

    A simple equation, with inputs of only sunspot number and carbon dioxide level, calculates the average global temperature trends since 1895 with 88% accuracy. See an eye-opening graph of the results and how they are derived in the pdfs at http://climaterealists.com/index.php?tid=145&linkbox=true

  31. There is substantial disagreement as to whether global warming is primarily caused by human activities. How can anyone “know” something that isn’t necessarily true.

    The 50% who don’t know that global warming is caused by human activities may not be ignorant; they may just disagree.

  32. This latest research underscoring America’s low eco-IQ should lend support for the need to get a credible, compelling and even sometimes comedic green talk show on syndicated terrestrial radio or TV. Connecting the dots between our many environmental challenges – with climate change, “the great exacerbator”, at the top of the list – and solutions, brought forth through the passionate and knowledegable voices of our many eco-innovators, is what is needed. It’s one of the missing pieces
    while we have hours and hours of programming with breaking news, political punditry, biz and sports, not to mention wall to wall coverage of celebutants – while home is burning! If you agree we need a daily, live and interactive program focused on pressing green issues, on a network platform, please sign the petition at http://apps.facebook.com/causes/petitions/150?m=4c828ab9. Thanks!

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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