Kiran Stacey What do Americans know about climate change?

For climate change activists, a new Yale study entitled Americans’ knowledge of climate change might make the heart sink. Their worst fears appear to have been met with the results showing that 52 per cent of over 2000 Americans surveyed scored below 60 per cent on the knowledge test, earning them a lowly F grade.

Sure enough, the media response was scathing. 52 per cent of Americans flunk Climate 101, said the NYT’s Green blog. Large gaps found in public understanding of climate change, said the Science Daily.

But the headlines are a little unfair, not least because the questions were technical, and aimed at testing how detailed the public’s understanding of climate issues was (so not really ‘Climate 101′ then). For example, how many people would you expect to know that water vapour is an important part of the greenhouse effect? Or that “The last 10,000 years have been unusually warm and stable, compared to the climate of the past million years.”

Given the complexity of the questions (which the paper’s authors themselves admit), I would say around 60 per cent would be a perfectly reasonable mark. But on this grading system it would secure only an E, and one per cent lower would get an F.

Some of the results might even come as a pleasant surprise to environmental campaigners. 63 per cent, for example, said global warming is happening, and 50 per cent that it was mostly caused by human activities.

The researchers make one very good point though: the knowledge that Americans do have is sporadic and sometimes riddled with misconceptions, and this has an effect on how serious a problem they conclude it to be. In the report’s words:

These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks.

The report found that 45 per cent of Americans are not particularly worried about climate change. This is surely one of the reasons that Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker reporter who wrote a magisterial 10,000-word piece on the death of the US cap-and-trade bill, said yesterday: “The issue is dead until 2013 at the earliest.”