A study conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies tested a sample of 2,030 Americans from across the country on their knowledge of climate change. The results, which were announced last week, reveal that only 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, with just 57 percent knowing the basics of the greenhouse effect. The results will be used to help various organizations, such as museums or government agencies, plan better global warming outreach efforts, said Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and a research scientist at the School of Forestry.
He added that he was not at all shocked by these results.
“What had surprised me most is the degree to which our suspicions had been true,” said Leiserowitz, referring to Americans’ unfamiliarity with climate change.
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation as part of the Communicating Climate Change Initiative, a project established in collaboration with Cornell University and the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Conducted online with the assistance of Knowledge Networks, the survey contained a total of 55 questions, such as “How much, if anything, have you read or heard about ocean acidification?” Leiserowitz added that this study is the first national, in-depth assessment of Americans’ knowledge of climate change. The results of the study have been receiving a great deal of attention and several thousand copies of the article have been downloaded from the School of Forestry’s website since it was posted last week, Leiserowitz said.
Four environmental science scholars interviewed — professors at Dartmouth, Stanford, Cornell and Harvard — all agreed that the survey indicates that the American public needs to be better educated on the subject of global warming. Three of the four added that they were the results of the survey are roughly in line with their own predictions.
Kenneth Arrow, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1972 and is a professor of economics and operations research at Stanford, said he attributes the public’s lack of knowledge regarding climate change to the complexity of the mechanisms involved. He said that the evidence for global warming, while significant to a scientist, is far less accessible to the average American.
Christine Eppstein Tang, Director of the Office of Sustainability of New Haven, echoed similar sentiments. Many of the residents of New Haven with whom she works are at least somewhat uninformed not only about climate change but also about the initiatives of her department, she said.
“It’s just hard for people to wrap their heads around things that affect humankind in such a gradual way,” Tang said. “There are few drastic changes to everyday life that are caused by climate change, so people just don’t take it seriously.”
Tang added that her office spends the majority of its time raising awareness about its programs and initiatives, more so than it spends on explaining the science of climate change to the public. The goal of her office is to encourage sustainable practices, not necessarily to educate the public on the facts behind climate change, she said.
Since the beginning of fall semester this year, three Yale students in the freshman seminar “Urban Ecology in New Haven” have been working with the office, which is part of a community service requirement of the class.
The freshmen — Christian Williams ’14, Nicole Shibley ’14, and Drew Morrison ’14 — have worked to raise awareness among New Haven residents about such sustainable projects as the Green Healthy Homes initiative, which provides free energy auditing to residents of the city. Morrison said he was surprised at how few people actually knew about this and other programs at the office.
“If people don’t involve themselves in the simple initiatives of their city, it’s pretty clear they don’t really understand climate change,” he said.
Williams and Shibley added that they felt the participants in the home auditing program were more concerned with saving money than they were with being energy efficient.
Melissa Goodall, Assistant Director of the Yale Office of Sustainability, said in an e-mail that she feels as though members of the Yale community have a “deeper knowledge” of climate change than the average American. The four students interviewed all agreed that while the results of the study may apply to the American population at large, the 63 percent statistic almost certainly does not apply to the Yale student body.
In the coming months, Leiserowitz’s team will publish data regarding the effect children and parents have on one another in transmitting climate change knowledge.
Juliana Hanle contributed reporting.