America’s Knowledge of Climate Change

Posted by Dan Karney on Oct 29, 2010

Filed Under (Environmental Policy)

The Yale Project on Climate Change recently released a report titled “America’s Knowledge of Climate Change”.  The Project quizzed a representative sample of Americans on a wide range of questions about climate change and assigned grades to the participants.  Unfortunately, over half of the individuals surveyed answered less than 60% of the questions correctly, and with a curve 27% received a failing grade.

However, more interesting than the overall grades are the responses to individual questions.  For instance, 63% of Americans believe that climate change is happening, but only 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface.  In general, the report reveals confusion about the basic science of greenhouse gases.  Here are two examples.

First, a large majority of Americans incorrectly believe that reducing toxic waste (67%) or banning aerosol spray cans (69%) would reduce climate change.  While toxic waste and depletion of the ozone layer are important environmental problem, they are not directly related to the production greenhouse gases.  The confusion here is understandable as individuals might be conflating issues that each receives, or has received, the considerable the attention of environmental activists.

Second, only 67% surveyed know that the burning of fossil fuel emits carbon dioxide.  I find this result most troubling.  Regardless of whether one believes climate change is happening, basic chemistry shows that fossil fuel combustion necessarily leads to the emission of carbon dioxide.  Indeed, any logical argument for reducing fossil fuel use to combat climate change must begin with the acknowledgment that burning fossil fuel creates CO2.  Without this basic knowledge, policymakers have a more difficult time advocating for renewable energy sources rather than relying on natural gas, oil, and coal.

After its publication, the Yale Project’s report was picked-up on the Huffington Post (here).  The Post asked its readers to rate on a scale from 1 (“Not Too Surprising”) to 10 (“That’s Ridiculous”) the results of fourteen questions from the survey.  The readers selected the result that “12% of Americans say that global warming is happening, but will be more beneficial than harmful” as the most ridiculous.

While many Post readers think that the statement about global warming being beneficial is ridiculous, upon closer inspection it might not be so ridiculous after all.  Scientists predict that climate change will have differential impacts: some places warmer, some colder; some places drier, some wetter; and so on.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that some places in the U.S. could receive a net benefit from climate change.  Indeed, this is one of the many problems that makes political consensus on climate change so difficult.  Perhaps the readers of the Huffington Post should receive a failing grade too!