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Six Americas of Literacy on Climate

What image comes to mind when you hear the words “global warming”? Ice shelves crashing? Shrinking glaciers? Polar bears stranded on floating ice chunks? 

If you answered one of the above, i.e. melting ice, then you chose the most common response among Americans in a poll conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Leisorwitz, who received the UO’s first Ph.D. in environmental studies in 2003, returned to Eugene this spring to give a talk on “Climate Change in the American Mind” at the Many Nations Long House.

This question is part of a broader study released by Leiserowitz in 2011, “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” which explores public opinion trends on climate change and the state of Americans’ climate literacy. According to the study, overall public concern for climate change has decreased since it peaked in 2007-08. Between 2008 and 2011, there has been a 10 percent drop in public understanding that climate change is human caused and a 13 percent decline in Americans who believe there is a scientific consensus, even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree about climate change. So what gives?

“We have to resist the temptation to point to a single cause,” says Leiserowitz. A perfect storm of factors has caused climate change to recede from public consciousness: the economy and unemployment, the “climategate” email scandal, the unusually cold weather since 2008 (think snowpocalypse), an effective denial industry, and a drop in media coverage. According to Leiserowitz, since 2007 there has been a two-thirds drop in newspaper coverage and a 90 percent drop in nightly network news coverage.

“Most Americans don’t read the peer-reviewed literature,” say Leiserowitz. “If the media doesn’t report this issue, it’s literally out of sight and out of mind.”

He has also identified a new defining factor. “Americans don’t speak with a single voice on this issue,” he says. The study polled more than 1,000 people nationwide and found that the nation falls into six categories:

Alarmed (12 percent): Those who believe climate change is happening, it’s human caused, and it’s an urgent problem. 

Concerned (27 percent): People who believe climate change is happening, it’s human caused, but it’s not urgent.  

Cautious (25 percent): The cautious wonder if climate change is human-caused or natural, if it’s a serious risk or exaggerated.  They are also the most willing to change their minds.

Disengaged (10 percent): The group that has heard of global warming but knows nothing about it. “Knowledge is one of the main barriers keeping them from being engaged,” says Leisorwitz.

Doubtful (15 percent): They don’t believe that global warming is happening, and if they do, it’s a natural part of the climate system.

Dismissive (10 percent): People who are firmly convinced that climate change is not happening. 

“Each one needs to be engaged in their own terms,” says Leiserowitz. “If you don’t know who you’re trying to reach and what they know, what they don’t know, and what their values are, it’s like trying to throw darts in a crowded room with the lights off.”

Want to know which “America” you fall into? Take the quiz at http://uw.kqed.org/climatesurvey