ADVERTISEMENT

Why Are Americans So Ill-Informed about Climate Change?

Scientists and journalists debate why Americans still resist the consensus among research organizations that humans are warming the globe



NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's Scientific Visualization Studio

As glaciers melt and island populations retreat from their coastlines to escape rising seas, many scientists remain baffled as to why the global research consensus on human-induced climate change remains contentious in the U.S.

The frustration revealed itself during a handful of sessions at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, coming to a peak during a Friday session, "Science without Borders and Media Unbounded".

Near the forum’s conclusion, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climate scientist Kerry Emanuel asked a panel of journalists why the media continues to cover anthropogenic climate change as a controversy or debate, when in fact it is a consensus among such organizations as the American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Physics, American Chemical Society, American Meteorological Association and the National Research Council, along with the national academies of more than two dozen countries.

"You haven't persuaded the public," replied Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio. Emanuel immediately countered, smiling and pointing at Shogren, "No, you haven't." Scattered applause followed in the audience of mostly scientists, with one heckler saying, "That's right. Kerry said it."

Such a tone of searching bewilderment typified a handful of sessions that dealt with the struggle to motivate Americans on the topic of climate change. Only 35 percent of Americans see climate change as a serious problem, according to a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

It's a given that an organized and well-funded campaign has led efforts to confuse the public regarding the consensus around anthropogenic climate change.

And in the absence of such a campaign, as in South Korea, there is no doubt about the findings of climate science, said Sun-Jin Yun of Seoul National University. All three of the nation's major newspapers—representing conservative, progressive and business perspectives—accept climate change with little unjustified skepticism.

Still, it is hard to explain the intransigence of the U.S. public and policy-makers on the issue.

Explanations abound: Is it the media? Under-education? Denialism?
Tom Rosenstiel of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed at the media, focusing on its overall contraction in the past two decades. Shrinking budgets have led to a proliferation of quick, cheap reporting, as well as discussion and commentary formats that rarely provide informative discussions of actual science results.

"What is shrinking is the reportorial component of our culture in which people go out and find things and verify things," he said. Truth has little chance to make itself known in the new narrow and shallow public square.

Poll after poll, and even late night TV talk shows, seem to revel in Americans’ ignorance of basic scientific facts, including the fundamentals of physics and biology.

Is this "science information deficit model" then the reason for our failure to accept climate change? Naomi Oreskes, a University of California, San Diego, science historian rejected that hypothesis during one of the sessions on denialism. "It's quite clear there are many highly educated people who do not accept global warming," she said. Still, scientists "must communicate climate science as clearly and effectively and robustly as we can," she added.

The current political and cultural context drive the nation's denialism around climate change, evolution and vaccines, said Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, during a session. Education and scientific literacy and general intelligence levels are not causing the problem.

Meanwhile, most Americans in fact are ignorant of the facts of climate science and even "confuse climate change with the ozone hole," Schmidt remarked. The processes around the latter's disappearance are related to global warming but "how is that a basis for having any sensible conversation?" he asked.

Solutions: Smart talking and media mastery
Surveys show that most people want more information about climate science, Schmidt said, so scientists should engage in public forums such as blogs, question-and-answer sessions and public talks, provided they are not simply stacked with angry debaters.

Scientists must engage with the public and be vigilant against projecting stereotypes of their profession—such as the elitist, arrogant scientist, Schmidt said.

Rosenstiel echoed this advice and further urged scientists to bypass the media, who are no longer critical intermediaries for reaching the public given the growth of the blogosphere and the general fragmentation of the industry.

He advised scientists similarly to make sure their points are very clear and to avoid giving climate deniers an opportunity to extract a phrase from ones communications or answers to questions that fits an anti-science theme.

In fact, Thomas Lessl of the University of Georgia called science communications "naive" and said the entire enterprise of communicating science about climate change needed to be reformed. More information will not help. "Personal knowledge always trumps technical knowledge in public communication," he said.

Some of Rosenstiel's advice recalled Lessl's observation when he reminded the audience that interviews are entirely on the record and that they are not conversations. "One way of doing that is to be like a politician and answer what you want to answer and not answer fully what they have asked," he advised. Also, "if you feel the question is loaded, give them the answer that you would have given if the question were not loaded."

NASA's Schmidt suggested that further public engagement to fill the gaps in understanding between soundbites and scientific literature would be useful, but that there are no guarantees.

M.I.T.'s Emanuel offered a familiar explanation for why some scientists are allergic to public forums: "There's an attitude in our culture that if we're doing outreach...we may be engaging in a kind of advocacy that is poisonous to science."

Despite the concerns, optimism prevailed regarding the role of journalists and scientists in better communicating climate change in the future. There will be more reporting and it will be more accurate in the future, but the current media landscape may be the ultimate decider, Emanuel noted.

"Fourth estate reporting will get better," he added. "The fact that we're here today is an indicator of that. At the same time, the availability of the Internet soapbox will ensure that the amount of background noise will go up. I don't see any way of preventing that."

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X