Climate of Confusion

Are recent natural disasters evidence for the end times, global climate change….or both?  A new survey suggests that nearly half (49%) of Americans think the former and more than three in five (62%) think the latter, meaning, because the total is more than 100%, some conclude it could be both.  

The survey, which sets out to examine why Americans are conflicted about climate change, environmental policy, and science, was conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the American Academy of Religion with funding from The Nathan Cummings Foundation and The Ford Foundation.

The study examines beliefs and attitudes toward climate change, in this case with a lens toward religious and spiritual affiliation and beliefs. And like most surveys, this one doesn’t examine a key contributing factor: the current climate of confusion is due in part to people never learning the basics about climate change in school.

The survey includes interesting tidbits and insights, such as discovering that only a third of American oppose increasing federal funding for research on renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydrogen, even if it raises taxes. (This raises an interesting question: why would someone be willing to raise taxes if the end times are upon us?)

The report, with its focus on religion, slices data into different faith backgrounds, finding, for example, that white evangelical Protestants are the most likely to attribute recent natural disasters to the biblical “end times” rather than to climate change, with 77% saying in effect that the apocalypse is approaching, while 49% attribute global climate change as a factor. Again, the numbers add up to more than 100%, so some respondents clearly think both may be contributing factors.  

The survey’s Spiritual Experiences Index finds that four in ten Americans have very high or high frequency of spiritual experience. Does this correlate with concern about climate change? The researchers think not, concluding “there is no significant relationship between frequency of spiritual experiences and beliefs about the reality and causes of climate change.”

My only major quibble with the survey is how the respondents were labeled. Opting for a lumping rather than splitting approach, the researchers use three bins relative to attitudes toward climate change—Believers, Sympathizers, and Skeptics. This is similar but less nuanced that the six audience segments (Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful, and Dismissive) used previously by the Six Americas research group, which has been doing survey work in this area since 2008. The result of this lumping is a mash-up of complex attitudes and understandings with potentially misleading labels.

Those who think climate change is caused by human activities are the largest group (46%), and they are dubbed the “Believers,” an unfortunate term in this context since it inevitably conveys spiritual or religious belief, when in fact it may be based not on faith but actual knowledge and understanding of the science involved.

The middle group, 25% of the survey respondents, feel natural cycles are the cause of recent changes, and they are called “Sympathizers,” another odd choice of terminology. Is someone who says volcanoes, not humans, are to blame for recent changes in climate really going to be sympathetic to reducing human impacts on the climate system? Probably not.

The third group, called “Skeptics,” claim that there is no solid evidence that Earth’s temperature has risen over the past few decades. The use of this term is particularly problematic in the scientific context of climate change since scientific skepticism is the lifeblood of science. The real “skeptic” movement fully accepts climate change is real and being caused by human activities. And the Skeptical Science website is a treasure of myth-busting information about climate science.

So why use the term “skeptic” to describe those who don’t accept the current science? Admittedly, in some climate circles the term “denial” has become taboo and using the term “denier” can be incendiary (deliberately or not) when used as a pejorative. But dismissing or denying current science is not skepticism. It is outright denial, whether literal or interpretive, and it should be described as such. Regardless, this group overlaps almost primarily with what the Six Americas researchers describe as the Dismissive, Doubtful, and Disengaged.  

We have examined the climate of confusion here in the US previously and noted that even as acceptance that the climate is indeed changing and support for renewable energy grows, confusion is still widespread.

As this new report amplifies, our economic, religious/spiritual, and/or political background all contribute to our attitudes and beliefs about climate change and related topics. Clearly, ideology and worldview do matter.

But consideration of what people actually know about climate and energy issues is absent from this and most other surveys. One of the few studies that looks into people’s actual understanding of the science, Anthony Leiserowitz’s 2010 survey of the climate change knowledge of teens and adults in the US, acknowledged that because most people don’t formally learn about climate change in school, they are forced to piece together bits of scattered and sometimes contradictory information to form their opinion. The end result, Leiserowitz and colleagues conclude, is that “many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making about this issue in a democratic society.”

Data from the PRRI study does find that a higher education level is indicative of higher concern about climate change, and lower education with less concern. Whether or not people actually understand the basic causes, effects, and risks beyond a surface understanding of climate change is not examined in the study.

Leiserowitz’s 2010 knowledge study begs for a follow-up survey. Alas, funders have been uninterested in supporting such research, evidently content, for now, to continue to focus on people’s beliefs rather than on what they actually know.

Beliefs, whether skeptical or sympathetic, ignorant or informed, have massive power in our lives. But uninformed beliefs or wishful thinking will not prepare us for changes that are well underway. Knowledge to make informed decisions and know-how—the skills and training required to take appropriate action—are required to develop adequate responses to climate change.

Image: The Scream of Nature, Edvard Munch


Short Bio

Mark McCaffrey is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.