MANCHESTER, N.H.—Professor Lawrence Hamilton is not at all flabbergasted that most Americans are flunking Global Warming 101.
The University of New Hampshire sociologist witnesses the disconnect daily as he attempts to make that learning curve less steep.
Americans could boost their climate IQ, Hamilton suggests, if politicians would hire and value science advisers, scientists would speak out and more readily and share their data, and people would become more discriminating about their online intake.
"What's new is the Internet-fed belief that you know more than you know," Hamilton told SolveClimate News. "People aren't getting climate change information directly from scientists. Instead, it's being filtered via the Internet. And these days, four or more years of vigorous and peer-reviewed research can get spun by a blogger in one day."
Hamilton traveled to Manchester, N.H., on Oct. 20 to present his study "Granite State Views of Climate Change" during a climate forum sponsored by the New Hampshire Carbon Action Alliance. The study shows that most New Hampshire residents believe their climate is changing—but there are deep partisan divisions. More on that later.
"Not very many people could even give a three-sentence explanation of climate change," Hamilton said about the general public. "They think they understand it, but if you gave them a physics quiz, they wouldn't pass it."
Hamilton's sentiments are echoed by a Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication study released in mid-October. In "Americans' Knowledge of Climate Change," Anthony Leiserowitz and his fellow researchers found that although 63 percent of people believe global warming is happening, most of them can't explain why.
Gaps in knowledge and misconceptions about climate change and Earth systems mean few Americans are eligible for the honor roll. Some 52 percent of the population would get an F grade, 40 percent would earn a C or a D and a mere 8 percent would be at the top of the class with an A or B.
Where New Hampshire Stands
No doubt, grasping the basics of climatology is difficult, Hamilton said. The vocabulary is challenging, modeling programs are complex and ever-evolving, and data sets can easily be misinterpreted by laypeople. For instance, he added, very few people even know that two types of sea ice exist—one type melts every summer while another has endured for eons.
To start gauging where New Hampshire residents stand on global warming, Hamilton collaborated with the UNH Carsey Institute to add three climate questions this year to what's called the Granite State Poll. This statewide poll is a quarterly telephone survey of 500 randomly selected adults.
Overall, results from April, July and September 2010 show that most residents believe the climate is changing, have at least a moderate understanding of the science behind it and think that most scientists agree that human activities are causing climate change.
The survey also shows that age, education level and political party affiliation affect respondents' answers.
For example, those in the 18-to-29 age bracket overwhelmingly stated that climate change is happening now and is caused mainly by human activities. That belief lessens with age, the survey shows. As well, 62 percent of the respondents with an education beyond a bachelor's degree said that human-caused climate change is happening now. That figure decreased to 42 percent among those with a high school degree or less.
However, the deepest divides cropped up when Hamilton separated respondents by party. Among Democrats, 79 percent said that human-caused climate change is occurring now. That dropped to 52 percent among independents and 27 percent among Republicans.
In addition, a full 75 percent of Democrats said most scientists agree that manmade activities are causing climate change. That number tapers off to 50 percent among independents and 26 percent among Republicans.
"We'll be watching this as a barometer," Hamilton said about continuing to track responses to the climate questions. "It's not meant for advocacy."
Where to Go From Here
The media does not help to advance the climate change conversation when reporters and newsroom decision-makers focus on "he said-she said" arguments rather than explain the science, Hamilton said.
So it's little wonder, he continued, that legislators who are educated about global warming are often fearful about taking a stance.
"Politicians have a limited ability to lead on this issue," he said. "During a campaign, if you're taking a position your constituents don't understand, your opponent will use that in his or her next negative ad."
When the Clean Air Act became law in 1970 and the country united to tackle depletion of the ozone layer, the idea of deploying the environment as a wedge issue didn't exist, Lawrence pointed out.
"Today, if you don't like the solution to a problem like global warming, then just say it isn't a problem," he said. "That way you can discredit the scientists who are saying this is a problem."
To help turn that tide, Hamilton suggests that small groups of qualified nonscientists take the electronic lead in demystifying climate data by creating easy-to-understand spreadsheets and graphs accessible online.
"That's the new frontier," he said. "Scientists are getting more engaged in real-time feedback. But this can't all be up to the scientists because there aren't enough of them and they don't have the time."
Not All Gloom and Doom From Yale Study
In its 60-page study, the Yale researchers reveal that most Americans are unaware of the causes, risks and impacts of global warming, and few have a grasp on potential solutions. For instance, 57 percent know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat; half understand that human activities are causing global warming; and only one-quarter have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.
However, many survey respondents might actually merit an "A" for effort because they seem to know what they don't know about climate change.
The researchers also pointed out several bright spots.
For one, Americans make the connection between renewable energy sources and reducing fossil fuel emissions. And despite recent controversies such as "Climategate," they trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than other sources of information about global warming.
Also, despite the fact that only one in 10 claim they are "very well informed" about global warming, large majorities of Americans want to know more. In addition, they want schools to teach children about the topic and would welcome a national program that educates the public.