Two surveys released this week on opposite sides of the Atlantic paint very different pictures of how residents in the U.S. and the U.K. feel about climate change. A new Pew Research Center poll released on Thursday found that while 87 percent of scientists said climate change is mostly due to human activity, only half of the public agreed. A separate British poll found that almost the same percentage of the general public in Britain, 84 percent, as scientists in the U.S. attribute climate change as occurring somewhat or entirely from human activity.
This is the highest level of concern since 2005 in Britain, and the researchers found that those affected by the devastating floods last winter were significantly more likely to express concern about climate change. Fifteen percent of the overall respondents listed climate change as a major threat to the U.K. over the next two decades, a number that nearly doubled to 29 percent when applied to those with recent flooding experience.
“We have found, although we could only partly attribute that potentially to the flooding, that belief in climate change has gone up in this particular survey compared to surveys we’ve done over the last five years or so, and that is a particularly significant result,” said professor Nick Pidgeon of the University of Cardiff, who led the research. Last year was the wettest December and January in the U.K. since 1910, with southern parts of the country receiving more than double average rainfall in January.
If half the U.S. population believes that climate change is mostly due to human activity right now and a direct experience of climate change doubled the number of people in the U.K. who see climate change as a major imminent threat, is it possible that a few more weather catastrophes could tip the balance in the U.S.?
As the National Climate Assessment last year demonstrated, climate change is not a thing of the future. Droughts, floods, heatwaves, and extreme storms are increasing in frequency and intensity. With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officially declaring 2014 the hottest year in 134 years of record-keeping, these impacts are likely to reach more and more Americans in the future.
Of course there are many other ways to establish an understanding of how humans are causing climate change aside from intense and devastating personal experience. Listening to scientists and developing a basic understanding of science through education is one obvious approach. According to the Pew poll, 68 percent of the general public considers U.S. science education at or below average; 84 percent of scientists held the same view.
Alan Leshner, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the group Pew surveyed) said that poor education that leads to simple lack of understanding is a big part of the disconnect between the opinions of the general public and those of scientists.
“It’s not about whether the public is dumb or not,” he told the Guardian. “It’s partly a function of the American educational system that does a terrible job … at educating young people in science, math and technology.”
When it comes to education curricula, climate change is one of the most controversial. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a set of K-12 standards developed by national science education groups, is the first major overhaul of science education in the US in over a decade. Finalized in 2013, the NGSS teach that humans have significantly altered the Earth’s biosphere, a point that some state legislators take issue with. While the standards have so far been adopted by 13 states, Oklahoma and South Carolina have moved toward banning them. Wyoming just repealed legislation approved last year that would have forbidden the state’s schools from teaching that climate change is caused by humans. Texas has also made adding standard scientific standards, let alone historical episodes, into the state’s educational curriculum into an ongoing saga.
The situation in Congress lately has resembled a schoolyard battle. The Senate made passing a bill approving the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline a priority — a measure Obama has said he will veto — and passed it yesterday after several weeks of bickering and trolling each other over various amendments. In one afternoon, they voted nearly unanimously that climate change was a real thing, but remained divided over whether humans were causing it.
Even just a few years into the future, things could start to change in the United States. A poll released Friday found that nearly half of all Republicans support action to address climate change. Conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University, and the research group Resources for the Future, the poll found that 48 percent of Republicans are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports action climate change action. The very same percentage of Republicans, 48, said they were less likely to vote for candidates that consider climate change a hoax.
The poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe they will be personally hurt by climate change, with only 36 percent thinking this hurt will be “a great deal” or “a lot.” That implies that there is a gap between believing in human-caused climate change and believing we should do something about it. So maybe when almost everyone believes in it, the world will be ready to do something about it. Which begs the question — will it be too late?