What Does the Public Know?

Part 4 in a series of 5 for NextGen Journal

Like it or not, a scientific consensus exists that humans are causing the Earth to warm. However, the small number of scientists that disagree with this conclusion get a disproportionate amount of media time, particularly in the United States: most newspaper articles give the two “sides” equal weight. Does this false sense of balance in the media take a toll on public understanding of climate science? Are people getting the false impression that global warming is a tenuous and controversial theory? Recent survey data from George Mason University can help answer these questions.

65% of Americans say the world is warming, but only 46% attribute this change to human activities. Compare these numbers to 96% and 97% of climate scientists, respectively. Somewhere, the lines of communication are getting muddled.

It’s not as if people hear about scientific results but don’t believe them. Given that 76% of Americans “strongly” or “somewhat” trust scientists as sources of information on climate change, you would expect public knowledge to fall in line with scientific consensus. However, it appears that most people don’t know about this consensus. 41% of Americans say there is “a lot of disagreement among scientists” regarding global warming. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 56%; for the Tea Party, 69%.

If you could ask an expert one question about climate change, what would it be? Among survey respondents, the most popular answer (19%) was, “How do you know that global warming is caused mostly by human activities, not natural changes in the environment?” As a science communicator, this statistic intrigues me – it tells me what to focus on. For those who are interested, scientists can attribute changes in the climate to particular causes based on the way the global temperature changes: patterns of warming in different layers of the atmosphere, the rate of warming at night compared to in the day, in summer compared to in winter, and so on. You can read more about this topic here and here.

In this survey, the differences between Republicans and Democrats weren’t as extreme as I expected. Instead, it was the Tea Party that really stuck out. Self-identified Tea Party members are, based on their responses, the least informed about climate science, but also the most likely to consider themselves well-informed and the least likely to change their minds. A majority of members in every other political group would choose environmental sustainability over economic growth, if it came down to a choice; a majority of every other party thinks that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. But the Tea Party seems opposed to everything, including solutions as benign as urban planning.

Luckily, this anti-science movement only made up 12% of the survey respondents. Most Americans are far more willing to learn about climate change and question their knowledge, and there is no source that they trust more than scientists.