The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication recently put out a report on Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change.  The findings are pretty interesting, but at times really problematic.  This project has a history of putting out cool products that address the complexity of communication and opinion surrounding climate change, such as their Six Americas project.

This graphic, from that report, shows that dividing the country (or indeed any group of people) into global warming alarmists and global warming sceptics is a gross oversimplification of public feeling and perception.  The poles of alarmed and dismissive are less than 25% of the population.  Disengaged, doubtful and dismissive are only 34% of the population.  Alarmed and concerned are 41%.  Note that neither category is a majority (though alarmed and concerned is a plurality).  Anthropogenic global climate change is NOT dead in public opinion at all.

Well, how did we get to this spectrum of opinions?  The new report suggests that while we spend a lot of time talking politics, the larger issue might be education and outreach.  There are some really interesting findings in here – for example:

Majorities of American adults correctly understand that weather often changes from year to year (83%) and that “climate” means the average weather conditions in a region (74%). Majorities, however, incorrectly believe that the climate often changes from year to year or that “weather” means the average climate conditions in a region, suggesting that many people continue to confuse weather and climate.

Yep.  And I blame the media, who seem to constantly conflate these two on all ends of the political spectrum.  A heavy snowfall does not discredit climate change (or even warming), but a heat wave is not a signal of warming unto itself, either.

A majority of Americans (73%) correctly understands that current conditions are not colder than ever before in Earth’s history, but a majority (55%) incorrectly believes the opposite – that the Earth’s climate is now warmer than it has ever been before (this is false – global temperatures have been warmer than current conditions many times in the past).

Wait, who ever said it was the coldest it has ever been?  I get what they are trying to do, but that is just an odd thing to throw in.  And the fact a majority thinks we are at our warmest point ever speaks to a deeply distressing lack of understanding of our history – things have been warmer in the past, and we know from the geologic records associated with those times what sorts of sea level rise, etc. we can expect.  We are not in terra incognita entirely right now – we have records of sudden changes in the state of the global climate as it warmed beyond where we are today.  The past is prelude . . .

There is a lot of this sort of thing in the report.  All of it is interesting.  But it needs to be read with a careful, critical eye.  I am worried about some of the questions in this study – or at least their phrasing and the interpretation of the results.  For example:

Thirty-nine percent (39%) say that most scientists think global warming is happening, while 38 percent say there is a lot of disagreement among scientists whether or not global warming is happening

At first, this simply seems to be an illustration of the wide divide in the public on the understanding of the nature of the scientific consensus around climate change.  But this question is too broad to really capture what is going on here.  Answers probably varied greatly depending on the respondent’s level of knowledge (highly variable, as the report noted) – for example, a well-informed person inclined to think that the human causes of global climate change are overstated could take the real and significant (but very narrow) debates about the exact workings of various greenhouse gases, or how to best model the climate, and argue that this represents significant disagreements about whether or not anthropogenic global warming is happening (which is a serious mischaracterization), while someone who is more environmentally inclined but has less understanding of the field might simply assume there is no debate in the science at all, which is not true.  To get to 38% thinking that scientists are debating whether climate change is happening or not suggests that something like this happened on this question.  There is more or less no scientific debate, and very minimal public debate, over whether or not the climate is changing – the instrument record is pretty clear.  The question is how fast, and by what exact mechanisms.  Nearly all skeptics agree that some change is taking place – they just tend to doubt that humans are the cause.  If only 7% of the study’s respondents thought that climate change was not happening at all, why would they think that scientists had a greater level of debate?

I really dislike the following questions/data:

Respondents were given the current temperature of the Earth’s surface (approximately 58ºFahrenheit) as a reference point. They were then asked what they thought the average temperature was during the last ice age. The correct answer is between 46º and 51º. The median public response, however, was 32º – the freezing point of water – while many other people responded 0º.

Americans, however, did much better estimating the Earth’s surface temperature 150 years ago (before the Industrial Revolution). The correct answer is approximately 56º to 57º Fahrenheit. The median public response was 54º.

When asked what temperature they thought it would be by the year 2020 if no additional actions are taken to reduce global warming, the median response was 60º, slightly higher than the scientific estimate of 58.4º Fahrenheit.

Realistically, this is a bunch of wild guesses.  We Americans are not so good at simply saying “I don’t know”.  Hell, I would not have nailed these, and I work in this area.  The question requires too much precision to have any reasonable expectation of meaningful data.

Finally, a few moments of oversimplification in the data analysis that bother me – even though I like the idea of the report, and I generally agree with the premise that climate change is anthropogenic:

Majorities of Americans, however, incorrectly believe that the hole in the ozone layer, toxic wastes, aerosol spray cans, volcanic eruptions, the sun, and acid rain contribute to global warming.

Again, the analysis assumes a uniform, low level of understanding of climate change across the sample.  However, a well-informed person would know that the sun is, in fact, technically a contributor to climate change – it is a small forcing on our climate, dwarfed by that of greenhouse gases, to be sure, but still a forcing.  Had I been asked this question, I would have gotten it “wrong” by their analysis . . . but their analysis is predicated on an incorrect assumption about the drivers of climate change.  I could make the same argument for toxic wastes, as depending on what they are and how they are stored, they may well change land cover or decompose and release greenhouse gases, thus impacting climate change.  The analysis here is too simplistic.

I’m a bit surprised that this sort of a report would be full of problematically phrased questions and even more problematic interpretations of the data (i.e. predicated on misunderstandings of the science).  This is amateur hour stuff that any of my grad students could pick up on and address in their work long before they got to publication . . . too bad, as the effort and some of the information is really interesting.  It would have been nice to have a consistently interesting, rigorous report.