A Matter of Degree

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A Call for Better Climate Awareness

Marjorie Sun’s story on climate education efforts by science museums is particularly timely, since the legislative landscape in Washington is most likely to become more hostile to climate science, when Congress turns over next month (see John Broder’s post for the New York Times, for more on the Senate’s highest-profile climate contrarian).

Part of the "Feeling the Heat" exhibit at Birch Aquarium, near San Diego. (Photo: Birch Aquarium)

One of the educators interviewed in her radio feature, Tom Bowman, was among the signatories of a letter published in the journal Science shortly after the story first aired on KQED’s Quest. Bowman’s firm helps develop climate exhibits, including those at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla.

The letter declared that “Because the potential consequences of climate change are so high, the science community has an obligation to help people, organizations, and governments make informed decisions.”

The missive went on to call for a major initiative among scientists to improve public understanding of climate issues:

“The initiative must make concerted efforts to provide people, organizations, and governments with critical information, to address misperceptions, and to counter misinformation and deception.” Continue reading

Bridging the Science Gap

SAN DIEGO — Scientists from 50 nations are gathered here this week for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This year’s theme is “Bridging Science and Society”–not surprising as recent surveys reveal there’s a lot of bridge building to do.

Birch Aquarium's "Feeling the Heat" exhibit. Photo: Birch Aquarium, La Jolla

Birch Aquarium's "Feeling the Heat" exhibit. Photo: Birch Aquarium, La Jolla

During a two-day pre-conference for “informal educators” (science museums, aquariums, zoos, and the like) on “climate literacy,” speakers painted a mostly grim picture of Americans’ understanding of climate in particular and science in general. Jean Johnson of the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda pointed to research in which, when asked to “name a fossil fuel,” only four in ten could. Similarly, 56% surveyed thought that nuclear power contributed to global warming. There is still considerable confusion between climate change and the much publicized ozone “hole.”

Speakers from Yale, George Mason University* and the Pew Research Center all highlighted the recent trend toward rejection of contemporary climate science, despite several decades of accumulated evidence that affirms human impacts on climate. Several speakers, including former IPCC climatologist Richard Somerville (Coordinating Lead Author in Working Group I, for the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report) laid the blame for this chiefly on what was characterized as a well-coordinated, well-financed campaign of disinformation, organized by industries opposed to regulation of carbon emissions.

Some noted other factors, such as topic “fatigue” (people tired of hearing about it) and the current dismal state of the economy, which has shuffled personal priorities. Layered on all of that, “We live in an age of skepticism,” said Johnson of Public Agenda, in which trust in traditional institutions like government (and the media) is flagging. She pointed to the need for “credible neutral explainers” to act as translators between working scientists and the public. Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale, co-creator of the Six Americas project, noted that despite growing skepticism, there is still strong public support for climate and environmental education.

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Frank Niepold, education coordinator for NOAA’s Climate Program Office, pointed to what he calls the “solutions barrier.” He noted that while the likely effects of climate change are often discussed in K-12 classrooms, there’s a lack of attention to potential solutions. Other speakers said climate impacts and solutions should be more closely linked to issues that are consistently rated as high priorities among households, such as energy independence and public health.

*Climate Watch partnered with Yale and George Mason researchers to create our climate survey, “A Matter of Degree,” which is featured on Facebook and on the Climate Watch website.

Attitudes about Climate Change are Shifting. Is Yours?

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One possible Facebook results "badge" from KQED's "Matter of Degree" survey

Coinciding with the release of a Climate Watch Facebook survey that explores attitudes toward climate change, a new national poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows that the percentage of people who believe that climate change is a reality has decreased significantly in the past year.  Last year, 71%  nationwide believed the Earth was warming, regardless of the cause. This year the number is 57%.

Yesterday, Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, and Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Project on Climate Change joined Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation to discuss changing attitudes about climate change. (You can listen to the 30-minute segment or read the transcript here.)

Kohut said that the economy most likely plays a large role in the drop.  The number of respondents who assigned a top priority to protecting the environment dropped from 56% to 41% in this year’s study, while the proportion who chose dealing with the economy rose to 85%.  That squares with another part of the survey, in which fewer people said they were willing to protect the environment if it meant slowing economic growth or higher energy prices.

“I think what happens,” said Kohut on yesterday’s program, “is if you’re giving [the environment] a low priority, people will sometimes develop a rationale for that low priority. So you have more people saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not all that serious’…”

Kohut also pointed out that the cool summer experienced by much of the country this year could have played a role in the apparent flagging acceptance of climate change.

The Pew report, released last week, shows a dramatic partisan split in attitudes toward climate change.  Just thirty-two percent of conservative Republicans believe there is solid evidence for global warming, compared with 83% of liberal Democrats, according to Pew.

Leiserowitz discussed his research into attitudes about climate change, which was done in collaboration with the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

“This research really came from the recognition that Americans don’t speak with a single voice about climate change,” said Leiserowitz. “And what we found, in fact, is that there are six different Americas within America on this particular issue.” National surveys of attitudes toward climate change often yield very different results from polls in California, where there has been greater acceptance of the warming concept in general, as well as the role of human activity in it.

The original Yale-George Mason study, called “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” divides survey-takers into six psychographic groups: Alarmed (18%), Concerned (33%), Cautious (19%), Disengaged (12%), Doubtful (11%), and Dismissive (7%).

Climate Watch teamed up with Leiserowitz and his colleague Ed Maibach from GMU, to create an online version of this survey, called “A Matter of Degree.”  You can take the survey on KQED’s website or on Facebook.  Both versions allow you to compare your results to those of the original study as well as all online survey-takers.  With the Facebook version you can also compare your results with your Facebook “friends” who have already taken the survey and can invite new friends to take the survey.  The Facebook application also features a discussion area where respondents can share thoughts about the climate change and the survey itself, and there are links to learn more about each profile “type”.

What’s your climate profile?  Take the survey and find out.