October 19, 2010

The More You Know: the Crossroads of Climate Science and Public Policy

Last week, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released its findings from a national study aptly titled Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change. The study assessed Americans’ understanding of the global climate system – from the causes, consequences to potential solutions. Shockingly, if the respondents had been given a letter grade (graded on a straight scale), 52 percent of them would have received an F, “indicating that relatively few Americans have an in-depth understanding of climate change,” according to the study’s authors. Meanwhile, only 1 percent would have received an A, 7 percent a B, 15 percent a C and 25 percent a D.

Okay, I’ll admit that I’m personally not that shocked. As the authors of the report noted, “Most people don’t need to know about climate change in their daily life, thus it is not surprising that they have devoted little effort to learning these details.” Nevertheless, I think the authors capture an important point about what the study reveals about climate change and U.S. public policy:

Nonetheless, many of these questions reveal important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that climate change is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about this issue in a democratic society. (Emphasis added)

Now that last point is particularly important. While most Americans don’t necessarily make public policy decisions themselves – indeed, in most cases elected representatives are the ones making the decisions – it is difficult to hold public policymakers accountable if we don’t understand the issues they’re adjudicating. Clearer communication and improved knowledge can lead to better and informed decision making – that was the premise of a study we published here in April, Lost in Translation: Navigating the Gap Between Climate Science and National Security Policy. And indeed, I think the premise holds true across the board. I would argue that if Americans better understood climate change, public policymakers would be more receptive to giving it the attention it deserves. But as it were, that’s not the case. Indeed, political inaction on climate change could be linked to the fact that, as the study concluded, 45 percent of Americans say they are not very (26 percent) or not at all worried (19 percent) about climate change.

But I put it to you: using the grade scale the authors established for their study, if 52 percent of Americans received an A or B, would public policy on climate change be markedly different? Would we have passed climate change legislation, legislation that wasn’t toothless, but actually addressed the issue by curbing America’s greenhouse gas emissions?

Think about what that could mean. If 52 percent of Americans received an A or B, that could mean that the issue was even more mainstream (meaning more people were engaged), that people understood it well, including the causes and consequences (and a better understanding of the consequences might make the issue more pressing for them), and it could be more difficult for politicians – in Washington, the statehouse or otherwise – to justify political inaction. Granted, most of this is just conjecture. But I don’t think it is a stretch of the imagination.

Is it a lot to ask that most Americans improve their understanding of climate change? Maybe. But with the stakes as high as they are, I think it is a worthwhile ask. Now the real challenge may be how do we better educate them?