Climate Confusion Consensus

At a meeting in Washington DC last spring in the offices of the US Global Change Research Program, Anthony Leiserowitz—the driving force behind the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication—brought up the fact that the word "consensus" has two meanings.

One is 100% unanimous agreement, and the other is a very high level of agreement. Those who claim "there is no consensus among scientists" about human impacts on climate are correct if they use the first definition, and those who say "the debate is over" because the vast majority of climate scientists agree that humans are indeed altering the climate system are also right if they use the second definition.

The Yale group has just finished a new series of surveys of key states (as we previously examined) as well as two very different cities—San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio—and concluded that, while attitudes and beliefs about the causes and effects of climate change vary across the country, there are some similarities. Most people in the U.S. think global warming is happening (87% of San Franciscans, 79% in California overall, 70% in Colorado, Texas and Ohio, including Columbus) and that more should be done to address it by government, businesses and individuals.

But there is wide variation in people's attitudes toward whether humans are responsible or not for recent changes, how serious it is, and whether it will impact their lives. In the minds of most of those surveyed, except for the San Franciscans who, living on a fault line, are used to the potential for calamity, the impacts of climate change are still distant. Out of sight, out of mind.

For example, only one in four or five people feel global warming will harm people in their communities or families, and fewer still feel they will be personally harmed. By contrast, two thirds of San Franciscans anticipate that parts of their city will have to be abandoned due to sea level rise in fifty years.

The general consensus of the surveys is one of confusion. Yes, climate change is happening, maybe humans have something to do with it, more should be done about it, but it probably won't impact me or my loved ones. I'd like to help and should do more, but it's not really a priority and I don't know what to do.

The reasons for this disconnect are many and complex, but as Leiserowitz and others have pointed out, because most people have never learned the basics of climate, never taken a course in it, they've had to rely on bits and pieces of information, sometimes contradictory, to form their opinion.

Leiserowitz has said it would be great if everyone could take a course in climate science, but that will never happen. Perhaps not, but it won't be because we aren't trying our utmost to make sure all high school students and certainly all college students graduate with an understanding of the basic causes of, effects of, risks due to, and responses to climate change, so that they have the knowledge and knowhow to make informed climate decisions.

Short Bio

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