NPR

Americans Fail The Climate Quiz

A recent survey suggests many Americans mistakenly believe the ozone hole is causing global warming. Yale's Anthony Leiserowitz, leader of that study, discusses America's climate change knowledge, and outgoing Republican Rep. Bob Inglis talks about climate skeptics on Capitol Hill.

Transcript

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

The heated discussions over global warming are about to be turned up a notch as the new Congress takes over next month, composed of many more global warming skeptics or non-believers. Many on Capitol Hill like to say they are merely a reflection of their constituents. Is that true? How much do you know about climate change?

Here's a pop quiz, questions from a recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications to find out how much Americans know about climate change. We're going to - just three questions from that quiz. Here we go.

Question number one. True or false: The Earth's climate is warmer now than it's ever been. Is it warmer now than it's ever been? The majority of the 2,000 people surveyed said true, but that's false.

Number two. True or false: Banning aerosol spray cans worldwide will help reduce global warming. Most people thought so, but the answer is no. (Unintelligible)

Number three. What's contributed more to rising sea levels so far? Is it A) melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean; or B) warmer ocean temperatures. Sea ice, melting sea ice, or warmer ocean temperatures. Most people said it was melting sea ice, but the answer is warmer ocean temperatures.

Do you see a trend here? If this survey is any indication, we have a bit of studying to do on some of the basics of climate change. But it's not all bad news. There were some areas where the survey volunteers didn't do too badly.

Joining me to talk more about what Americans do and don't know about climate change is my guest, Anthony Leiserowitz. He's director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications at Yale in New Haven. He joins us by phone from the climate talks in Cancun today. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ (Director, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, Yale University): Hi, Ira, it's great to be here with you.

FLATOW: How are you?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: I'm great.

FLATOW: Well, let's go to the survey. What's the single biggest mistake people make thinking about climate change?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, I would say there's actually a whole series. But one of the ones that we find most pervasively is something you just alluded to, and that is many people continue to think that global warming and the ozone hole are the same problem, and in fact they're quite different problems.

But many people confuse the two. And in part that's because they were first introduced to this idea of a protective layer around the Earth, kind of like a roof, and then got the idea that there's this hole in that protective layer. And of course if you have a hole in your roof, what do you want to do? You want to try to patch that hole.

But then a few years later a different set of scientists came along with a different global environmental problem and used their own simplifying metaphor, their own simplifying model, called the greenhouse effect.

And of course, most people have very limited shelf space devoted in their minds to upper atmospheric processes. And so what we see is that many Americans continue to smush these two different models, these two different metaphors, the hole and the greenhouse, together and therefore think that there must be a hole in the greenhouse, and that's either allowing more sunlight into the atmosphere and warming up the planet, or some people flip it around and actually say there's heat escaping out the hole and we may go into a new ice age.

FLATOW: Ah...

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Perfectly logical, perfectly rational, but perfectly wrong.

FLATOW: Yeah. What did they get right? What did most respondents get right on this survey?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Yeah, more encouraging, perhaps, majorities do understand that emissions from cars and trucks and the burning of fossil fuels contribute to global warming and that a transition to a renewable energy system is really an important solution. And they're actually very strongly supportive of that direction.

We also see that trust in scientists remains very, very high. It did take a beating a bit with the IBCC mistakes and Climategate, but it still only came down from very high levels of trust, and they're trusted far more than any other communicators and sources of information in American society.

And perhaps most encouraging on this level is that Americans also recognize that they don't know very much. And 75 percent say that they want to learn more and want the government to, for instance, greatly increase climate change education in schools.

FLATOW: Do most people believe that global warming is real?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. As of July, we found that 63 percent of Americans think it's happening. That said, however, only 50 percent believe that global warming is caused by human activities.

FLATOW: So you have, like, a split right down the middle in your survey.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: They're split right down the middle.

FLATOW: And what do they think is causing it then?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, many think either that it's natural, so therefore it's due to things like the sun or volcanoes, or it's just part of the natural cycles of the climate system. And then some people just reject the whole idea of climate change itself. So it's not being caused either by humans or natural phenomena because it's just simply not happening at all.

FLATOW: So what is your take-away? And do you have further questions you'd like to ask, conduct another survey?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Oh, well, we are conducting many continuing to do surveys. And, you know, I think what this really shows is that Americans recognize that they don't know very much about this issue but really are still lacking some of the core knowledge about the issue.

And knowledge is not the only thing that, of course, influences people's opinions about the issue. But nonetheless, they really are looking for someone to provide that information so they can make more informed choices both in our own lives and collectively as a nation.

FLATOW: Well, you know, it's interesting. As you say that, and reading through your survey, it seems that half the respondents still think scientists are in disagreement about the science when in fact there's very, very clear consensus on that. Why do you think they think there's such disagreement among scientists?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, there's a couple things going on there. One, of course, is that the opponents of climate change action have very consciously and powerfully used doubt as their product. It's a very classic term.

In other words, they know that to forestall action they just have to raise public doubts about the certainty of climate change. You know, if it's not happening, then maybe we shouldn't be taking any action. So it's kind of it gets people into a wait-and-see mentality.

But the other, of course, is that there's been this long-standing critique of the way that the media actually reports this story, or certainly has reported the story over many years. And that is that reporters have often put, for instance, a climate change scientist to try to describe what climate change is and why there are serious risks about it, and then immediately pair them with someone who's a climate change skeptic.

And so the public hears these dueling scientists, these dueling views, and says: Well, gosh, they must be split, 50-50. When, of course, in terms of those who actually do the science of climate change science and publish in the legitimate journals are overwhelmingly in agreement that climate change is in fact happening and due primarily to human activity.

FLATOW: What are some of the things that people just seem not to know about in terms of climate change, things that the media might want to report on more?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Well, besides the obvious confusion of the ozone hole and global warming, another very standard misunderstanding is the confusion of weather and climate.

And that, unfortunately, gets people confused as well, because they say, well, look, we know that you can't predict the weather more than a few days in advance. So how could these climate scientists possibly be predicting the climate well into the future?

But, of course, we all predict the climate well into the future. That's easy. I mean, it's why people head south to Arizona or to Florida in the wintertime, because they know that the climate in Florida in the wintertime is warm and sunny compared to the cold and ice and snow that we experience in the northern part of the country.

So, you know, we do make predictions about climate all the time, and so that confusion is certainly part of why many people aren't yet convinced.

FLATOW: There's also, you know, we talk about it a lot, but I don't ever see it showing up very much in the media, and that's about the issue of the coral dying. The oceans' corals are dying all over the world.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Yeah, this is one of the most surprising things to me, is that we found that only 25 percent of the public, so it's one in four Americans, have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification, which is the newest concern that's being raised about climate change, because of course the oceans are absorbing a lot of the CO2 that are being pumped into them through the burning of fossil fuels.

And that - as that CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, it's turning them ever more acidic, and in just recent years we're beginning to see quite a lot of concern raised among the scientific community about what the implications of that are going to be for entire food webs, for example, within the oceans.

FLATOW: Have you done any since surveying the public, have you done any surveys of the incoming Congress or congresspeople who are there now, what they really know or understand?

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. No, I would love the opportunity to survey the members of Congress, but that's an incredibly difficult thing to do. However, I do believe that someone did that with Republicans who were running for Senate in this past election and found that overwhelmingly they tended to first of all be completely against the cap and trade bill that was discussed last spring, but also I think 21 out of 22 actually were raising questions about climate science itself.

So I think we're going to see a very different Congress, or at least a very different House of Representatives in January.

FLATOW: And will you try to poll them? Do you think you can get through to them? We've been asking these new Republicans to come on SCIENCE FRIDAY and share their views with us, but they just don't seem to want to do that.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: Yeah. I have no current plans to do so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get a phone call in here from John(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, can you hear me?

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

JOHN: Yes, I had a comment. I think that scientists often don't view the problem of getting out the message or getting the public educated in the same way that they do a scientific problem in their own area of expertise.

I've spoken to the late Steve Schneider, who's done a lot for climate science, and Paul Ehrlich, about this. And they view it as somebody else's problem. And I think there are different ways of approaching it, and I think, you know, polling is just starting to do that.

One poll that I heard recently was that a lot of the local weatherman at TV stations, they're really not climatologists. They're more TV personalities. And so our understanding of their understanding is just at the starting point. And I'd like to hear a comment about that.

And I think there's a lot of resistance at local levels that we don't think about...

FLATOW: Alright...

JOHN: ...really...

FLATOW: We're running - yeah, let me get a comment because we're running out of time. Thanks for calling, John.

Mr. LEISEROWITZ: So John's right on, and this is a really important point. This issue is not going to be actively engaged by the broad American public until we see a lot more voices joining into this.

Climate scientists aren't strong enough, they're not good enough at communication to do it all by themselves. And in fact, what we need is a whole new set of voices coming in, including the military, as you were going to look at later on in this, and that's actually a whole new set of voices that are, I think, really interesting, because they bring a whole new set of values to this issue.

But broadcast meteorologists turn out to be a really important source of information for most Americans. Most Americans get their news and information not from "The CBS Evening News" or sorry - not even NPR, but they get it from their local television news. And one of the main reasons they tune into their local television news is the local weathercast.

And weather and climate are only one step removed from each other. So this is a natural source of communicators and education for the broad public about what climate change is.

FLATOW: Alright. We have to take a break. When we come back, Bob Inglis, outgoing Republican from South Carolina's Fourth District, who has, I guess, a minority Republican view about climate change, will join us. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about climate change, how much Americans know about it, what we can expect to happen in this last part of Congress and especially in the next incoming Congress.

And I'd like to bring on a six-term congressman from South Carolina who is serving his final month in Congress. He did not win re-election. But the final climate hearing in Congress, he was very vocal a couple of weeks ago, and he had these parting words of advice.

Representative BOB INGLIS (Republican, South Carolina): And I'd also suggest to my free-enterprise colleagues, especially conservatives here, whether you think it's all a bunch of hooey, that we've talked about in this committee, the Chinese don't. And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century.

They plan on innovating around these problems and selling to us and the rest of the world the technology that will lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button.

FLATOW: Representative Bob Inglis is the outgoing Republican, representing South Carolina's Fourth District in the House of Representatives. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Rep. INGLIS: Thank you, Ira, great to be with you.

FLATOW: You know, some of those words sounded like another famous speaker, who said, to paraphrase: Forgive them for they know not what they do, so to speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. INGLIS: Yeah, I think so. You know, we're going to get through this populist rejection of science at some point, and get back to being conservatives in my party, I believe.

And conservatives are people who do embrace science and who do say let's go discover this beautiful creation, let's figure out how it works. But for now, we've got sort of a populist rejection of science.

FLATOW: Why is that? Can you help us out? When did something about science and the climate become a political issue?

Rep. INGLIS: A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum, didn't it?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Rep. INGLIS: It is really odd. I think what it is, here's my guess, Ira. People are understandably frustrated and anxious about their economic circumstances: the mortgage, paying for the kids' tuition, the future of their jobs. All those things are very front and center and of great concern.

And so in that environment, I think people don't want to hear some of the complexities. They don't want to hear uncertainties. What they want to do is they want to be able to hold on to what's here and now and what we know.

So for example when it comes to energy, we want to hold on to coal and petroleum because it's what we know. And we've just got to have more of it, we say, and surely it's out there. Let's go get it. Rather than saying OK, I'm willing to fly into the unknown with great courage here, to go see what we can discover by way of new things.

So in these uncertain times, I think you reach for what you know, and what you know is what exists; rather than the scientific discoveries that you could find out, oh, there are exciting new ways to do stuff.

FLATOW: Do you think that being a believer in climate change was part of the reasons you lost your election down there?

Rep. INGLIS: You know, I committed various heresies, as you know, against Republican orthodoxy, I guess. I voted against the troop surge. I voted to disapprove Joe Wilson's outburst. I voted for TARP. But the most enduring heresy, really, was just saying that climate change is real and that we should do something about it.

Now, by the way, I voted against cap and trade because I think it's not the right approach. I've got a revenue-neutral carbon-tax concept. It's a 15-page alternative to the 1,200-page cap and trade. It's a concept supported by everyone consider these extremes from Al Gore to Art Laffer. Ronald Reagan's economics advisor and Al Gore agree that this is a great way to go.

So I proposed that, and that became sort of the most enduring heresy.

FLATOW: In fact, some of your some of your constituents were quoted as saying you "crossed to Satan's side."

Rep. INGLIS: Yeah, it's sort of like you're going to dark side. And really, there's another thing I think that's worth discussing, Ira, is for some people, some people of faith, there's a concern about science as entering the province of God.

My view of it, as a believer, is that, you know, no, it's like with the when you have a child, and they start to walk. My wife and I are blessed with five children. When each of them has walked, it's been a huge celebration for us. We wanted them to walk. We wanted them to run.

I believe that God wishes for us to discover this creation, and so when we do, he's saying come on, you can find out how I did it, come on - rather than no, don't go there.

But some people of faith view it as science is no, don't go there. It's you're invading the province of God. Not my view. I think, you know, the people who gave us the scientific method were very strong believers, and they were out to discover the beauty of this creation.

FLATOW: Now, we've had other people from religious faiths coming on the programs, some leaders, Southern leaders, saying that the Bible teaches them stewardship of the Earth, and therefore their duty to take care of the Earth.

Rep. INGLIS: And people ask me if I believe in climate change, and I tell them no, it's not worthy of belief or faith. It's just data. The data shows that climate change is underway.

My faith informs my reaction to that data and tells me that I should be a steward of the creation, as you were just mentioning. But yeah, we've gotten crossed up, where it's sort of a matter of faith. Well, no, we just look at the data, and the data shows an increase in greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution, and so let's act. Let's be wise stewards.

FLATOW: Do you think that people's people who have made up their mind in Congress and people in general, if you present them with the data, that they're going to change their mind, or is it just something that when you make your mind up, there's nothing you can tell anybody that will change their mind?

Rep. INGLIS: Yeah, that's the hard spot we're in, is some people have made their minds up. Of course, maybe I'm good evidence of some hope there. You know, my first six years of Congress, I pooh-poohed climate change. I said it's a bunch of hooey.

And then I got back into Congress, got on the Science Committee, had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Antarctica to visit with the $340 million a year we spend on the U.S. polar programs. I saw the science and became convinced that the data is there. So let's act.

Besides, our it's a very important point. I know we're talking about science here, but even if you think it's hooey, as I used to - I do no longer - but even if you think it's hooey, we can stipulate to that and still decide to price carbon because by pricing carbon, we can improve the national security of the United States, and we can create jobs. Even if you think there's no reason to try to clean up the air, it's just an extra benefit that comes along with it.

So it's like Tom Friedman says, you know, in his book, about his book "Hot, Flat and Crowded." Even if you don't buy hot, you can't dispute flat and crowded.

FLATOW: You mentioned in your statement, about we may press the pause button for a few years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button. It was announced this week that the incoming House Republicans are going to eliminate a select committee on energy independence and global warming. Is that pushing the pause button, do you think?

Rep. INGLIS: I think it's well, it's not so essential to have that committee. It could be done by the Science Committee. But the whole gist of it needs to be, though, that we're not, we're not going to shelve these concepts of pricing carbon, that we're going to advance them.

But I think we are going to see a time period here for a couple years where it's going to be very difficult to advance a price on carbon. But what I hope we can get through to fellow conservatives - because, you know, look at my voting record, I'm a pretty conservative fellow, with an ACU rating of 93 lifetime.

I hope we can get through to fellow conservatives and say: As long as there are unrecognized negative externalities, bad things, associated with incumbent fuels, which are petroleum and coal, those fossil fuels - as long as the bad parts of those things aren't recognized, in other words aren't taken into account in the pricing of the product - the market's going to be distorted.

And new technologies that are cleaner, better - safer-sourced, not dependent on the Middle East, for example - can't compete in a free-enterprise system because the incumbents - petroleum and coal - are getting all these freebies.

So it's a very conservative position to say that we believe in markets, and we insist on all in comparisons of cost. And so, you know, even if, for example, you dispute climate change, and you think it's a bunch of hooey, as I say, consider the small particulates that come out of coal-fired electricity plants. Pulmonologists will tell you that those drive up admissions of asthmatics to hospitals. You can quantify that risk. That risk is not attached to that electricity price. If there were an all-in calculation, then other alternatives would be more attractive than the current one, which is coal. We'd be building nuclear power plants. We'd be pursuing solar. We'd be after wind in a bigger way. We'd be doing those things because the market will be acting as a market should.

FLATOW: Bob Inglis, thank you very much for taking time to talk with us today and good luck to you.

Rep. INGLIS: Thanks. Great to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Yeah. You're welcome. Representative Bob Inglis, the outgoing Republican representing South Carolina's 4th District in the House of Representatives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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