Americans Don't Know Much About Global Warming, and That's Not the Problem

By Chris Mooney | February 24, 2011 11:00 am

Scientific American has a good rundown of a debate that occurred over climate change, denial, and scientific literacy at the recent AAAS meeting. Essentially, panelists were trying to cope with multi-causal nature of the climate misinformation problem–is it politics, institutionalized denialism, media irresponsibility, scientific illiteracy, poor science education, poor science communication, or what? Here’s an excerpt from the SciAm piece:

Poll after poll, and even late night TV talk shows, seem to revel in Americans’ ignorance of basic scientific facts, including the fundamentals of physics and biology.

Is this “science information deficit model” then the reason for our failure to accept climate change? Naomi Oreskes, a University of California, San Diego, science historian rejected that hypothesis during one of the sessions on denialism. “It’s quite clear there are many highly educated people who do not accept global warming,” she said. Still, scientists “must communicate climate science as clearly and effectively and robustly as we can,” she added.

The current political and cultural context drive the nation’s denialism around climate change, evolution and vaccines, said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, during a session. Education and scientific literacy and general intelligence levels are not causing the problem.

Meanwhile, most Americans in fact are ignorant of the facts of climate science and even “confuse climate change with the ozone hole,” Schmidt remarked. The processes around the latter’s disappearance are related to global warming but “how is that a basis for having any sensible conversation?” he asked.

Do you see how many factors are rolling around here? And elsewhere in the article, the role of the media is dragged in, as is the role of poor science communication by scientists.

My answer to this problem–and of course, the answer provided in Unscientific America–is that all of the causes listed above, and listed in the SciAm article,  are indeed operating to varying degrees. And for precisely that reason, it’s very important not to fall into the trap of thinking that education and greater literacy are some kind of solution on their own.

After all, this is a highly politicized subject–and that politicization will override calm reasoning no matter how much people do or don’t know about the topic.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to improve science education, or increase science literacy, because these are valuable for many reasons. We just shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking such steps will solve our problems.


Comments (16)

  1. TTT

    How much is the average person ignorant about EVERYTHING?

    From art history to civics to literature to how car engines work to cellular mitosis to the difference between Hindus and Buddhists, the average person will (kinda-sorta justifiably) tend to be ignorant about anything that does not effect their day-to-day life. I really don’t believe this is an inherently American or liberal / conservative issue; in any country where the people supposedly have higher science scores than we do, I’m certain that a different pop quiz would reveal equally abysmal ignorance about something else. Conservatives are right about one thing: you cannot change human nature.

    What’s special about scientific ignorance may not be the causes, but, rather, the consequences.

  2. Greg Peterson

    I’m not sure one must look beyond the Upton Sinclair quote used to the point of cliche: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Many Americans show an incredible ability to understand subtle, sophisticated topics when they are positively motivated to. Look at Fantasy Football–an activity I consider beyond me in required analytic abilities. Americans are not ignorant of global warming science so much as they are disinclined to accept what it might mean for their lifestyles.

  3. Ned Ewart

    All of the so-called causes listed in the article seem to me to miss the point. In my opinion, few doubt that there is global warming. The fact is that roughly 18,000 years ago the polar ice cap extended as far south as Des Moines and has been receeding (with some short-term blips) ever since. Even the unwashed and scientifically ignorant masses can see that there is an underlying and long-term warming process that cannot be explained by anthropogenic warming due to carbon emissions. The response to warming offered by politicians and some scientists to “save coastal areas from inundation,” “polar bears from extinction” and all the other Chicken Little prognostications, by controling global carbon emissions through a global carbon exchange seems even to those of us suffering from low intelligence and ignorance to be a half-baked idiot scheme. It seems to me that the scepticism concerning the issoue of global warming is a result of the failure by climate scientists to frame the issue in a context adequate to provide convincing arguments to the public that (1) we understand the actual dynamics of climate change, (2) that warming will stop if we control anthropogenic carbon emissions, (3) that warming is a bad thing and we should stop it,… the list goes on. If scientists are finding that their customers are not buying their product, they would do well to investigate the product rather than blame their customers.

  4. Cathy

    @Ned – Well, at least who accept that the Earth existed 18,000 years ago. For the Young Earthers, 18KYA is an imaginary thing made up by scientists who don’t believe in the Bible.

  5. Interesting article, I am not American I am British, and I do not believe man made carbon emissions are the cause of global warming. I accept the planet is warming and I suspect the reason is far more complex that we will ever comprehend.

    What really annoys me is the way the warmists go about deliberately trying to vilify and denigrate, people for voicing an opinion not in keeping with the ludicrous ideology, that states the amounts of CO2 we add the atmosphere is the direct cause of Global Warming. I also think it is insulting when they say we do not believe in climate change, which is an utterly ridiculous statement since it is obvious the climate changes constantly.

    When someone creates an unbiased documentary stating categorically that the reason temperatures in the last 20 years have risen is directly due to CO2, and that the only way to stop this continued rise, is to tax carbon and force most of the populations of the world into massive debt, then I will say OK. Somehow I doubt that will ever happen.

  6. RawheaD


    “What’s special about scientific ignorance may not be the causes, but, rather, the consequences.”


  7. John Atkeison

    A major flaw in our collective ability to deal with Global Warming and its consequences is the profound disconnect between what people believe and what our political system is able to deliver. In my experience– and I have been seeking conversations about global warming at the grassroots for over a dozen years now– the problem is not a lack of understanding that we have a big problem, it is our collective inability to turn that into action in the only arena that counts: politics.

  8. Joel

    Among the people I know, politics rather than level of science education is a much better indicator of their opinion on Global Warming. (My political views are inconsistent with any neat label.) Most conservatives I know deny that there is any problem and either insist that there is no scientific consensus or that scientists are so often wrong that they cannot be trusted on this subject. Some of these people are very intelligent and well educated, but I doubt any amount of information will change their minds. I am reminded of Michael Shermer’s quote that “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

  9. Chrysoprase

    It is much easier to be ignorant and repeat what your friends, your family, your politicians, or your preacher tell you than it is to actually learn about something. This is why I facepalm whenever I hear someone who I previously considered to be intelligent tell me they don’t believe in evolution or that they won’t get their kids vaccinated. Invariably they can’t give me a reasonable argument to justify their stance. I just can’t comprehend someone taking such a strong and unchangeable stance against something without really knowing anything about the subject. The same is true for climate change. Nearly every argument I hear against AGW is either patently rediculous if you know anything at all about science (E-MC2, where did the mass go?!), or is based entirely on false precepts (the sun is causing global warming, even though in reality the sun is currently relatively weak).

    The simple fact is that your average American can’t accept the possibility that their current way of life is unsustainable, and even if they do accept that they are unwilling to change. I see evidence that a different way of living is entirely possible every day, and the people living it do not seem to suffer, and in fact seem to be healthier. I am an American living in Japan, and it blows me away how much better the Japanese are at living efficiently than Americans are. Most people use public transportation or ride bicycles. Obiesity here is the exception rather than the rule. People recycle water by washing in a quick shower, then soaking in the bathtub and using that water to run their laundry machine. Nearly everybody hangs their laundry to dry rather than using a clothes dryer. Houses are smaller, cars are smaller, refrigerators and ovens are smaller. Almost everybody here sorts their glass, plastic, paper, batteries, and metals for recycling. Litter is practically nonexistant. Air pollution in Tokyo is nothing when compared to Atlanta or LA. I could go on for pages. The point I am making is that your average Japanese person has a much smaller carbon footprint than your average American, does more on a personal level to prevent pollution in all of it’s forms, and it’s not ruining their lives or their economy. Many Americans are just lazy, spoiled, and have a rediculous sense of entitlement.

  10. Nullius in Verba

    “Nearly every argument I hear against AGW is either patently rediculous if you know anything at all about science (E-MC2, where did the mass go?!), or is based entirely on false precepts (the sun is causing global warming, even though in reality the sun is currently relatively weak).”

    I’m curious about that climate change argument involving E=mc^2. I haven’t heard one of those before.

    The sun increased in strength over the 20th century. The current cycle over the past few years is weak, but then so is the rate of warming.

  11. james wheaton

    I currently live in the south of the US, but I lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest. This gives me a bit of an uncommon perspective – a blue versus red one in which I have seen both. In the south I meet so many decent honest folks. Almost everyone attends church Sunday, and many go mid week as well. This is definitely the Bible belt. And practically nobody believes in global warming. This is in great contrast to western Washington State.

    I am becoming increasingly convinced that a significant portion of the US population denies global warming on religious grounds, and this is especially the case in the south. The notion of a human induced environmental catastrophe runs completely counter to their understanding about God and the world He created. Most will scoff at the idea that man thinks he is so powerful to alter the world God has created. Others feel God would never allow such a catastrophe to occur. To me this is the ultimate irony – a people waiting for judgement day not realizing that they are brining it upon themselves.

    Disturbingly one need look no further than the US congress where it is packed with religious right representatives (all or nearly all Republican) who to a man deny global warming and have started a war against the science. Shimkus and Broun come to mind.

    This is not often discussed when discussing the reasons for global warming denial. But I think it is a crucial element, certainly in this part of the country if not everywhere rural and conservative.

    This is not absolute however. A small minority of Christian church going folks here believe the science and want to be proper stewards of God’s planet. But the percentage of persons in this category is pitifully small.

    I would love to hear comments on this idea, this elephant in the room.

  12. Arwen Crawford

    @ james wheaton

    There’s a certain line of thought that suggests that the development of monotheistic man/sky/god religions displaced feminine (pagan) earth worship religions. This separation of man and nature is contained within the concept of stewardship: that man is above nature, rather than part of it. Thus man seeks to impose upon nature, reduce it to definition by use; rather than working within the Earth’s parameters we are imposing our own.

    Not saying I necessarily agree with these ideas, but interesting food for thought. In fact I agree with James that a rediscovery of stewardship by religious folk would be very helpful to the general environmental cause.

  13. james wheaton

    Arwen – I agree wholeheartedly that we all would benefit greatly if religions took a strong stance on stewardship of the earth – in the US that largely means Christians. However, and especially where I live, the think is that God put oil in the ground and coal inside the mountain for our use, just as all the resources He created are here for the benefit of man his ultimate creation (created in His image you know). Therefore, the think goes, it is ludicrous to think that usage of those resources somehow is harmful to the robust creation of His making. This kind of think by the way is beyond scientifc findings. It is absolute truth, and if it is in conflict with science then science is wrong. The smiles (“you just don’t get it you heathen, but I love you anyway”) I get are chilling.

    There is a very politically powerful element in Washington DC, and in many state governments, that believes in this fashion and is shaping policy. Surely you have seen it, and in the US house it has hit like a ton of bricks since the 2010 election. It is very scary to me. I do not hold out alot of hope that this arm of the religious community in the US is going to be coming around to the idea of good stewardship anytime soon.

  14. Yes, it is a highly politicized debate.

    That said, the oil-soaked Republican Party in the United States is the only political party in the world to be in denial of the conclusions of the IPCC.

    The GOP are in denial despite the fact that 98% of the world’s climate scientists are in agreement with the conclusions of the IPCC.

    They are in denial, despite the fact that every scientific organization in the world is in agreement with the conclusions of the IPCC.

    In a court of law, an expert witness is a witness, who by virtue of education, training, skill, or experience, is believed to have expertise and specialized knowledge in a particular subject beyond that of the average person.

    That said, if we went to court to settle this issue, who would the deniers call as their expert witnesses?

    The deniers would bring James “Mountain Jim” Inhofe, one of the most vocal deniers that exists, along with his new book called “HOAX”.

    We’d bring the National Academy of Science of the United States.

    Actually, we could pick anyone of 32 national science academies that have come together to issue joint declarations confirming anthropogenic global warming, and urging the nations of the world to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

    The deniers would bring Patrick Michaels; a “C” student who’s in hot water right now for lying to congress about who signs his paycheck. He lied and said that only 3% of the $4 million he received last year came from oil and gas interests when in fact it was 40%.

    We’d counter with the American Geophysical Union and its 58,287 members.

    The AGU was established over 90 years ago, and for more than 50 years has operated as an unincorporated affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences.

    These aren’t “NOBODIES.”

    The National Academy of Sciences is like the Supreme Court of science. Members of the NAS are essentially the best of the best when it comes to science, of an entire country.

    The deniers would bring Khabibullo Abdusamatov, a 70 yr old Russian astrophysicist.

    We’d bring Stephen Hawking, one of the most awarded scientists in history.

    The deniers would bring 87 year old Fred Singer, former cancer and Freon denier.

    We’d bring the American Institute of Physics.

    The American Institute of Physics was founded in 1931. It formally incorporated in 1932 consisting of five, original, “member-societies”, and a total of 4,000 members. A new set of “member-societies” was added beginning in the mid 1960s. The AIP has been publishing scientific journals for almost 80 years.

    The deniers would bring Henrik Svensmark a physicist at the Danish National Space Center in Copenhagen who studies the effects of cosmic rays on cloud formation.

    We’d bring NASA.

    We’d bring every scientific organization that knows anything at all about this subject because they ALL agree with the conclusions of the IPCC.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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 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.


See More

Collapse bottom bar