Exploring Public Views of Science and the Environment

Community and Environment in Rural America

Exploring Public Views of Science and the Environment

larwrence hamilton headshot
Lawrence Hamilton, Ph.D

What do people know, or believe they know, about science-heavy environmental topics ranging from climate change to conditions of local beaches or forests? What does the general public learn from scientific research? Who knows what, and who cares? Lawrence Hamilton, sociologist and senior fellow at the Carsey Institute, explores these questions through a series of regional and national surveys. Detailed analysis and findings from the surveys are published regularly in scientific journals and in Carsey Institute reports and briefs. This web page highlights some of the most interesting and recent results from those surveys.

 


If the Arctic region becomes warmer in the future, do you think that will have major effects, minor effects, or no effects on the weather where you live? (response order rotated)

Date: 06/04/2013

Results from telephone surveys with random samples of New Hampshire residents, conducted in fall 2012 and winter/spring 2013.

A total of 1,678 interviews were carried out by personnel at the Survey Center of the University of New Hampshire, in connection with the Granite State Poll.

A paper in progress analyzes demographic, political, and daily-temperature effects on how people answered this question:

Hamilton, L.C. & M.D. Stampone (2013) “Arctic warming and your weather: Public belief in the connection.”

will arctic warming have any effect where you live

 


The Demographics Of Disagreement On Climate Change

Date: 04/16/2013

Listen to Larry Hamilton on NHPR. He discusses the latest findings from the "Granite State Poll", in particular the responses relating to the public's perception on climate change.

http://www.nhpr.org/post/demographics-disagreement-climate-change

 


 

The Demographics of True and False Volcanic Facts

Date: 04/02/2013

The previous post about “demographics of true and false Arctic facts” (3/11/2013) might have sounded too specialized to be a study in itself. Indeed it is. The Arctic ice question is only one of many science-knowledge items that have been carried on recent surveys. This post gives two more examples.

Careful scientific measurements since the 1950s, starting in Hawaii and subsequently confirmed at other stations around the world, establish that the concentration of carbon dioxide or CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is rising. There have always been natural sources of CO2, such as volcanoes. But we know from ice cores that, for at least the past 800 thousand years, natural sources have been roughly balanced by natural sinks (the ability of plants, soil, and oceans to absorb CO2), so the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere remained below 300 parts per million (ppm). Today, it is rapidly approaching 400 ppm.

Human activities such as burning fossil fuels are currently adding about 35 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. Results are seen in the graph of Hawaii and South Pole data below. Chemical analysis confirms that the added CO2 comes largely from fossil fuel burning rather than natural sources. (Note also that the two largest volcanic eruptions of this period, El Chichón and Mt. Pinatubo, are marked on this graph but have no visible effect.) Some of the human-released CO2 gets used by plants or absorbed in soil; some is absorbed in seawater where it contributes to a growing problem called ocean acidification. A large fraction stays in the atmosphere, however, where scientists now understand that it is changing the heat balance of the planet. Atmospheric concentrations already are at levels not seen since the Pliocene epoch several million years ago when sea levels were 80 feet higher than today.

Rising CO2 levels underlie the scientific concern about human-caused climate change. Scientists’ consensus is reflected in statements by every major science organization with relevant expertise, representing hundreds of thousands of scientists. From scientific organizations and academies, studies by thousands of individual scientists, and even from surveys, we know that scientific agreement on the reality of human-caused climate change is much higher than agreement among politicians or the general public. This science/public divergence was explored by a nationwide survey (NCERA) conducted in summer 2011, which asked 2,000 people what they thought about basic facts such as the CO2 trend:

Which of the following three statements do you think is more accurate?
Scientific measurements have confirmed that in recent decades, the concentration of CO2 or carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is...

  1. Decreasing
  2. Staying about the same
  3. Increasing

Most of the 2,000 respondents (63 percent) answered correctly that CO2 is increasing. Only 16 percent thought that CO2 is staying about the same, 9 percent guessed “decreasing,” and 11 percent admitted they did not know. (These and other survey results include a minor statistical adjustment called weighting, which gives results that better represent Census profiles of the population.)

Although 63 percent overall gave the right answer, this percentage differed across subgroups. Four graphs below show the percentage of accurate responses broken down by gender, age, education, and political party. The patterns resemble those we saw previously for Arctic ice trends.

Given the high proportion of correct answers, the CO2 question might be called easy. A more challenging science question, comparing the recent contributions of humans and volcanoes, was asked on statewide polls in 2012 and 2013. Volcanologists calculate that the amount of CO2 being released by humans is more than 100 times greater than recent annual worldwide emissions from volcanoes and all other geological sources combined. Even the Yellowstone Caldera super-eruption, which occurred 2 million years ago and would devastate the United States if repeated today, may have released less CO2 than a single year of human activities. This survey question simply asks whether people think that human activities or volcanoes released more CO2 over the past few decades.

Which of the following three statements do you think is more accurate?
Over the past few decades,

  1. Human activities have released much more CO2 than volcanoes.
  2. Humans and volcanoes have released about the same amounts of CO2.
  3. Volcanoes have released much more CO2 than humans.

Only 39 percent knew or guessed the right answer to this question. One third said they did not know. These results are from about 1,700 New Hampshire residents interviewed by the Granite State Poll in 2012 and 2013.

Although the percentage of correct responses is much lower for the volcano question than for CO2 or Arctic ice trends, it follows similar demographic patterns. Gender and education differences in volcano responses are smaller, however, while political differences are larger. These details fit with the idea of biased assimilation (people retaining information, scientific or not, when it agrees with their pre-existing beliefs) as discussed in the previous post. Although scientific evidence regarding the Arctic sea ice, CO2, and volcanoes questions is clear, anyone who wants to can find contrary claims on the Internet. People who do not accept that humans are altering the climate are more likely to believe such claims.

Political differences also reflect biased guessing: some people who do not have specific information about CO2 or volcanoes are willing to make guesses based on their general beliefs. Perceptions about science have been increasingly politicized among the U.S. public in recent years. As the surveys found, politicization colors beliefs about physical reality.

More detailed analysis of both right and wrong answers appears in an article in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society (2012), “Did the Arctic ice recover? Demographics of true and false climate facts.” The 2011 national survey (NCERA) was supported by a grant to the Carsey Institute from the Ford Foundation. Statewide New Hampshire surveys with questions on science and the environment are ongoing, supported by the National Science Foundation (New Hampshire EPSCoR EPS-1101245; PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership DUE-1239783), the Carsey Institute, and the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

 

 


 

The Demographics of True and False Arctic Facts

Date: 03/11/2013

An article in Witness the Arctic, newsletter of the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS), highlights a polar aspect of recent Carsey Institute survey research on public knowledge about science and the environment.

One of the most visible signs of climate change has been the shrinking area of Arctic sea ice, observed by satellites since the 1970s. Downward trends are statistically significant for every month of the year, but most pronounced for the late summer. The graph below tracks the average September ice cover from 1972 to 2012. Five different extent or area measurements,developed by different teams,show declines of several million square kilometers (three times the size of Texas) since the late 1970s. There was a particularly dramatic step down in 2007, and then another in 2012. By September 2011, sea ice area was 40 percent below any measurements before 1990. The next year, it fell to more than 50 percent below any pre-1990 measurement. An “Arctic Report Card” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes these and other signs of change.

Arctic change has been covered by news media, sometimes following new scientific reports. Still, not everyone pays attention to such reports, and some disbelieve them on political grounds. Exploring how knowledge of the Arctic ice decline (and contrary claims of “recovery” found on the Internet) have spread, Carsey Institute researchers included the following question on a nationwide survey in the summer of 2011. Telephone interviewers rotated the order in which they read response choices, to avoid biasing the responses.

Which of the following three statements do you think is more accurate?
Over the past few years, the ice on the Arctic Ocean in late summer ...

  1. Covers less area than it did 30 years ago.
  2. Declined but then recovered to about the same area it had 30 years ago.
  3. Covers more area than it did 30 years ago.

Overall, about 68 percent of the 2,006 people interviewed think that ice covers less area than it did thirty years ago. From scientists’ perspective, relatively high awareness is encouraging. The graph below breaks down percentages of “less ice” responses among different subgroups. Majorities in all groups know of the decline. There are small differences by gender, and somewhat larger ones by age. The strongest effects relate to education and politics.

Perceptions about sea ice also correlate with beliefs about climate change, assessed by this question:

Which of the following three statements do you personally believe?

  1. Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities.
  2. Climate change is happening now, but caused mainly by natural forces.
  3. Climate change is NOT happening now.

The graph below shows that Arctic sea ice decline was known or guessed by 80 percent of those who believe climate is changing now due to humans, 60 percent of those who believe it is changing but for natural reasons, and just 32 percent of those who believe climate change is not happening now. The “not now” group was less accurate than those who said they don’t know about climate change.

This knowledge/belief relationship might be interpreted as a science literacy effect: Knowing about Arctic ice decline could make people more prone to agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. However, causality also runs in the opposite direction, from general beliefs to whether or not people accept scientific results. A process called biased assimilation, or selectively retaining information that supports pre-existing beliefs, may influence acceptance of the false but widely publicized claim that Arctic sea ice has recovered.

More detailed analysis of biased assimilation appears in an article in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society (2012), “Did the Arctic ice recover? Demographics of true and false climate facts.”

The 2011 national survey (NCERA) was supported by a grant to the Carsey Institute from the Ford Foundation. Other surveys on science and the environment are in progress, with support from the National Science Foundation (New Hampshire EPSCoR EPS-1101245; PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership DUE-1239783), the Carsey Institute, and the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

 


 

Daily Temperature and Beliefs about Climate Change: The “Zorro” Graph

Date: 02/25/2013

In April of 2010, the Granite State Poll began asking random samples of New Hampshire residents what they believe about climate change:

Which of the following three statements do you personally believe?

  1. Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities.
  2. Climate change is happening now, but caused mainly by natural forces.
  3. Climate change is NOT happening now.

By the summer of 2012, the poll had answers from more than 5,000 people, interviewed on 99 separate days. Beliefs about climate change fluctuated over this period without clear up or down trends. They remain strongly polarized: almost 80 percent of Democrats, but less than 30 percent of Republicans, say they believe that climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities. Beliefs among Independent voters fall between these extremes, but are more weakly held. Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, Independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to.

lawrence hamilton zorro graph

The “Zorro” graph shows probabilities of a now/human response to the climate beliefs question as a function of political party and temperature anomaly (deviation from “normal” for that date) on the day of the interview and the previous day. The graph’s probabilities are calculated from a statistical model that takes into account each respondent's age, gender and education, along with the season of the year. More explanation of the data and analysis appears in the article co-authored by Lawrence Hamilton and New Hampshire State Climatologist Mary Stampone, “Blowin’ in the Wind: Short-term weather and belief in anthropogenic climate change,” published in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society (2013).

The abstract and a link to the journal article are here:

http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/WCAS-D-12-00048.1

A Science Daily report about this study can be read here:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130124122934.htm

Granite State Poll surveys on science and the environment have been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (New Hampshire EPSCoR EPS-1101245; PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership DUE-1239783), and by the Carsey Institute and the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.