Friday, March 9, 2012

Climate Change: An Informed vs An Educated Public: Some Preliminary Questions. And a Little Bit Extra.

Recently the American Meteorological Society published preliminary results of a survey of it members: ( Maibach E, Stenhouse N, Cobb S, Ban R, Bleistein A, et al. (2012) American Meteorological Society Member Survey on Global Warming: Preliminary Findings. Fairfax, VA: Center for Climate Change Communication. Available for download at: The intent of the survey was to assess AMS members’ perspectives concerning their assessment of the assessment of evidence of climate change, intra-AMS conflict, AMS’s role in public education and the members’ involvement in public education. The description of the sampling and methods can be assessed by accessing the above document.

One of the Research Aims is stated as “(RQ4) To what degree do members feel AMS should play an active role in education the public and other external forces (e.g., policy makers) about climate change?” The problem with such a goal is that there is no clear and operational definition of what is meant by ‘education’. Does, for example, this mean the physics of the climate system? the state of the science? what to do about climate change? Without the knowledge of what ‘education’ is assumed to mean, little insight can be gained from this part of the survey.

Results from a recent survey of policy decision makers (Bray and Martinez, A survey of the perceptions of regional political decision makers concerning climate change and adaptation in the German Baltic Sea region. International BALTEX Secretariat ISSN 1681-6471 Publication No. 50 September 2011. Available on line) might suggest that if education is the goal then there is a need to educate climate scientists how to educate (See figures 1 and 2.) One could get the impression that as things stand it is akin to having an automotive engineer teaching people how to drive. Again, what is the intended purpose of the ‘education’? I think the intention might be the provision of information, not education, and there is a difference; an advertising spot on television provides information, but not an education. Watching a commercial about a new model car on television or reading about it in a popular magazine provides me information but it does not take me on the path of becoming an automotive engineer, which would be an education. At times it seems there are too many climate change ‘specialists’ trying to perform in the wrong specialty. Has anyone bothered to ask just what the non-specialist wants to know?

Anyway, as the two following figures show, the group of non-specialists in this survey did not get an education, and not much information, directly from science. And what information they did get from science they found not too useful.

Figure 1. Sources of Information Used in the Decision Processes of Regional Political Decision Makers

How much do you use the following sources of information in shaping adaptation decisions and policy?

Figure 2. Political Decision Makers and the Utility of Science

Concerning the views of AMS scientists about climate change, I take reference from two previous surveys of climate scientists: CliSci2008: A Survey of the Perspectives of Climate Scientists Concerning Climate Science and Climate Change:

GKSS 2010/9 CliSci2008: A survey of the perspectives of Climate Scientists Concerning Climate Science and Climate Change (available on line)


SurBACC 2010. A survey of the perspectives of climate scientists concerning climate change and climate science in the Baltic Sea basin. International BALTEX Secretariat ISSN 1681-6471 Publication No. 48 October 2010 (also available on line).

Here I will simply note differences and similarities among the three surveys.

Manifestation of climate change

The AMS survey asks “Regardless of the causes, do you think that global warming is happening?’ From their sample, 89% answered yes; 4% answered no and 7% said hey did not know. In the sample of Baltic scientists working on the Baltic region and an international sample from the other survey, the question is posed somewhat differently: How much do you agree that climate change, whether natural or anthropogenic, is occurring now? Response category possibilities ranged from ‘1 not at all’ thru ‘7 very much’ and a value of 8 was provided for ‘don’t know’. For comparative reasons, values 5,6 and 7 are used to represent ‘yes’ and values 1,2, and 3 will be used to represent ‘no’(continued throughout). Approximately 90% said yes, that climate change was under way. Using the same method of calculation, the international survey shows that approximately 84% of scientists agree. All three surveys seem to agree quite well on this concern.


The AMS survey asked respondents “Do you think that the global warming that has occurred over the past 150 years has been caused by ...”. 59% of the respondents answered ‘mostly by human activity”. In the other two surveys the question was posed slightly different: “How much do you agree that most of the recent or near future climate change is, or will be, the result of anthropogenic causes? 54% of the Baltic sample tended toward a yes response; in the international sample however approximately 89% answered yes. Bearing in mind the years which separate the surveys, this might indicate an advancement of knowledge, i.e. the Baltic survey and the AMS survey are both post climategate while the international survey is pre climategate. The latter are also after a few years of –non-warming.


AMS: Over the next 100 years, how harmful or beneficial do you think that global warming will be to people and society, if nothing is done to address it?” 38% answered very harmful and 38% said somewhat harmful, so harmful in some way was the answer given by 76% of the respondents. In the other two surveys, without time delimitation, the question was simply ‘How convinced are you that climate change poses a very serious threat where you live?’: 52% responded some threat to very much a threat in the Baltic region. In the international sample 79% said they were convinced that climate change poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity. I will leave any further comments to your imagination.

The Message to the Public

The AMS survey asked its members “How worried are you about global warming? 30% answered very worried and 42% answered somewhat worried, suggesting 72% would consider that worry was warranted. In the Baltic survey, scientists were asked ‘Over the issue of Baltic regional climate change, the general public should be told to be ... 59% tended towards saying ‘worried’ (but of the entire sample, only about 2% answered ‘very worried’). In the international survey 84% suggested that there was a need for worry with only 15% suggesting we should be very worried.

So what can we see in all of this:

• not much has changed concerning the belief that climate change is underway

• doubt may be increasing concerning attribution

• the assessment of damages seems related to regional consideration

• the level of worry agrees well with the level of perceived impacts (Baltic scientists – 52% suggested some threat, 59% suggested the need to worry; AMS 76% responded harmful impacts should be expected, 72% said worry was necessary; in the international sample, 79% saw climate change a threat and 84% claimed the need to worry

Now, if we could just explicitly explain these impacts – I think this is what those deemed to need educating would like to know. ‘Your fish population/crop yield will decrease by 5%’ as opposed to ‘The water might be 1 or 2 degrees warmer or precipitation 10% - 40% less.’ And are meteorologists the best prepared to talk about fish populations? If I am a fisherman I want a fisheries expert to tell me about fish, not a climate expert to tell me about temperature. If I am a fisheries expert I need to know about temperature and I want a climate expert to tell me about this. But this information should also be kept meaningful. The fisheries expert already knows that oxygen depletion due to ice cover will lead to the death of the fish population or that water too hot will produce precooked catches. He also knows about fish migrations, which climate experts do not know. And then there are time frames to consider. Should we have had the climate debate 20 years earlier in some cases climate/fish might have been a moot point: Who knew then that Edu and his countrymen would empty the Grand Bank.

There is a meaningful chain of communication.  Are climate scientists the appropriate link for front .line interaction with the public?

Decisions need to be made as to who is to be educated, what is it we want them to know, and why?  And if education is the goal, as with history, whose account of climate change will be presented?  Then again, if information is the goal ...


Georg Hoffmann said...

"Are climate scientists the appropriate link for front .line interaction with the public?"

NOAA means yes. There was a session at the AGU on this. Here are some hints how to convince even republicans and ultra-konservatives machos of the Science of climate change:

1) Dont use words such as "reduction", "control", "desaster" instead use "entrepreneurship", "inovation" etc

2) Dont repeat climate "myths", dont even mention the name of your opponents.

3) Show masculin pictures. No sissyish kneeling down when putting solar panels on your roof but masculin climbing up a 50 meter windmill tower.

4) Keep it very simple.

5) Repeat as much as possible the message.

etc etc.

Harry Dale Huffman said...

An incompetent consensus cannot "educate" the public, it can only indoctrinate them with incompetent dogma--as it has done for over 20 years now.

Werner Krauss said...

Very interesting surveys!

Only the questions in your last paragraph sound a little outdated in the age of democracy and the Internet. There are no longer high commissariats which might decide "who is to be educated, what is it we want them to know " etc.

And I think there is no regulation in this world which will make a Latif, Grassl, von Storch, Schellnhuber or whoever present a specific and common version of climate change - the will always tell their own versions. No chance to change that, I guess -:)

MikeR said...

"38% answered very harmful and 38% said somewhat harmful, so harmful in some way was the answer given by 76% of the respondents."
"30% answered very worried and 42% answered somewhat worried, suggesting 72% would consider that worry was warranted."
I would think that, since my main interest in the question is, "Must we immediately begin taking expensive mitigation steps or can we afford to wait for better information" - well, from my point of view, Somewhat harmful and Somewhat worried = No. I would summarize: Most respondents were not all that concerned.