Many Americans care deeply about addressing climate change. Others question the underlying scientific evidence and/or various public policy mitigation and adaptation strategies. Some others, of course, view the issue as a conspiracy involving scientists and politicians sympathetic to ushering in a new world order. Still others know little or nothing about climate change.

For climate communicators, each of these groups requires a different, targeted communication strategy, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and research scientist at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University. Leiserowitz is also the publisher of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media.

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Yale Forum Publisher and Yale Project Director Anthony Leiserowitz on climate communications.

With researchers at George Mason University, Leiserowitz has been conducting national surveys of Americans’ views on climate change. Through his research, he explores how the public understands the causes and potential impacts of climate change, and their willingness to become engaged with the issue.

For example, his team has asked Americans, “What’s the one question you would like to ask a climate expert if you were given the opportunity?” People who doubt or dismiss climate change tend to ask, “Why should I trust you and your findings?” Leiserowitz says. But those who are already concerned or alarmed want to know what they can do to solve the problem.

In his most recent release of findings, “Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change,” Leiserowitz studied Americans’ understanding of how the climate system works and their attitudes toward causes and impacts of and potential ways to address climate change.

“We found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why,” Leiserowitz said in releasing that new report. If they were being graded, only 8 percent of Americans studied “have knowledge equivalent to an ‘A’ or ‘B,’” he said. Forty percent would receive a “C” or “D” and 52 percent would fail with an “F.”

“Thus, many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decisionmaking in a democratic society,” Leiserowitz said. He pointed to several examples:

  • 57 percent of those studied in the new report know that the greenhouse refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
  • 50 percent “understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities”;
  • 45 percent understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface; and
  • 25 percent have heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.

His study found “large majorities” of those surveyed still believing that the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, “leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions.” At the same time, he said, many of those whose opinions were studied “understand that emissions from cars and trucks and the burning of fossil fuels contribute to global warming, and that a transition to renewable energy sources is an important solution.”

The Leiserowitz study pointed to scientists and science organizations as being trusted sources of global warming information “far more” than others.

Upcoming Leiserowitz findings are to focus on updates to his “Six Americas” research reports and studies of American teenagers’ attitudes on climate change.

Sara Peach recently caught up with Leiserowitz via Skype. Watch the video to learn more about Americans’ understanding of climate change and how communicators can most effectively work to inform them.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...