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A Surprising Climate Knowledge Deficit

This week’s Climate Beat included a broken link to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication study. The link has been corrected below.

Most people don’t know as much about climate change as they think they do. That’s according to a landmark survey published this week by the Yale Program on Climate Communications, the gold standard in international polling about climate change.

More than half of respondents in Europe, the US, and Japan say that they know “a lot” or “a moderate amount” about climate change. Yet far less than half of respondents said, correctly, that climate change is caused “mostly by human activities” rather than by “natural changes in the environment. (In truth, climate change is caused almost entirely by human activities, primarily the burning of oil, gas, coal, and other fossil fuels.)

Meanwhile, roughly four in every 10 people, mostly in developing countries, do not even know the term “climate change.” Once it’s explained, however, they say in overwhelming proportions that climate change is happening all around them.

Yale’s findings are a wake-up call that journalism has to redouble its efforts to tell this story “so people get it,” as the eminent US journalist Bill Moyers said when helping to launch Covering Climate Now in 2019.

We may think we’ve told people more than once that climate change is real, human-caused, and happening now — and that by now they should get it. And some coverage has identified fossil fuel burning as the chief culprit. But clearly this point hasn’t sunk in with broad swaths of the public.

If people are unaware of such foundational facts, how can they possibly know that scientists consider the climate crisis an emergency, that rapidly phasing out of fossil fuels is imperative to preserving a livable planet, and that humanity has all the tools it needs to tackle this emergency?

The public’s climate knowledge deficit is most pronounced, and most tragic, in the places most at risk. “We estimate that … 2 billion adults worldwide still know little to nothing about climate change,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, told Covering Climate Now. “And these are often the most vulnerable [people], who have contributed the least to the problem, but are getting hit first and worst by the impacts. But when we give respondents a single sentence description of climate change, we find that more than 80% immediately say, ‘Yes, that’s happening.’”

Leiserowitz’s statement hints at a silver lining: The public’s knowledge deficit is easily remedied by providing accurate, readily understood information, and by meeting audiences where they are.

Journalists can do that by meeting our audiences where they actually are, never assuming they remember or should know something from our previous reporting. Let’s not be afraid to offer refreshers on basic climate facts. And let’s remember the advice of Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy: The most important thing people can do about climate change is talk about it, because talk is the precursor to action — and “who’s the number one person who can talk about it? You. The news media has an unprecedented platform to tell people the stories that we need to hear.”

Source : Covering Climate Now