Alexa Kirby / Gavel Media

Public Perception of Climate Change

To anyone without a STEM education, the technical terminology used in scientific writing may only serve to confuse and obscure the important points. As a result, people tend to form ideas about science based on popular news sources that reference studies vaguely or inaccurately, often with limited detail or critical analysis. This lack of effective communication between the scientific community and the general public leads to misunderstanding. In the case of climate change, this misunderstanding is dangerous.

To illustrate how this communication gap has affected the public’s perception of climate change, in 2016 the Yale Program on Climate Communication asked Americans whether they believe there is scientific consensus on climate change; 49% of those polled responded yes, while the other 51% believe scientists still disagree on the issue.

A poll taken informally in Professor Jeffrey Dacosta’s Ecology and Evolution course earlier this month revealed a similar distribution among BC students, with 45% of the class responding “yes” to the same question. Why is this so worrisome? Out of all the scientists polled by the YPCC, 97% agreed that climate change is occurring as a result of human actions. Clearly, there is a consensus. Furthermore, this statistic has been backed up by seven different studies conducted between 2003 and 2015, and the 2013 peer-reviewed study which produced the 97% figure had a sample size of 10,306 scientists.

Why is the disparity between public perception and data so great? For one thing, there’s a deliberate misinformation campaign headed by those against strict regulations on corporations regarding their carbon emissions. People lobbying against regulations attempt to delegitimize the climate change consensus because it makes it easier to deny the effects of climate change as a whole. If the public believes that scientists have not come to a definitive conclusion, it is less likely to support legislation that aims to reduce CO2 emissions.

Some of the most prominent denialists of the 97% statistic include former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (R) and Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R). In one interview, Ted Cruz claimed “the stat about the 97% of scientists is based on one discredited study.” It is unclear what evidence Cruz has for claiming the study is discredited, but it is a known fact that it is not the only one of its kind. Rather, it is joined by six other reputable studies with similar outcomes.

On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Santorum echoed these sentiments, stating, The 97% figure that’s thrown around, the head of the UN IPC (sic) said that number was pulled out of thin air. It was based on a survey of 77 scientists.” Not only did the head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change never claim this, according to Politifact, Santorum was likely citing economist Richard Tol instead (who is now involved with a climate change denying organization). The figure of 77 scientists is also inaccurate, referring to a subsample within a larger poll.

Both Cruz and Santorum push this narrative forward to sow doubt and convince the American people that climate change is not a pressing issue. Santorum once called President Obama’s environmental protections a “job-crushing agenda” being shoved down the throats of the American people. Cruz is also staunchly anti-carbon emission regulation. What’s so upsetting about this is that reduction of emissions should be a bipartisan challenge. There is nothing inherently political about it; the welfare of the planet affects the welfare of all people, regardless of political ideology.

Data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii show that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been rapidly increasing ever since the Industrial Revolution. The concentration of this greenhouse gas has increased from about 315 parts per million in 1960 to an alarming 406 ppm in 2017. By analyzing glacial ice-cores, which contain pockets of air whose CO2 concentration can be measured, they found that the 320 ppm mark had not been crossed in 800,000 years or more.

The increase in atmospheric CO2 has already had measurable effects. The average surface temperature of the Earth has warmed 0.8 ℃ since the 1960’s, and it’s expected to warm another 1.5 to 2 ℃ even if emissions are reduced soon. Though these may seem like negligible increases, the health of ecosystems hinges on very specific temperature trends, so deviations can have extreme effects, even leading to species extinction. In the Arctic Sea, the 0.8 ℃ increase has already resulted in the loss of about 2 million square kilometers of ice since 1979. This is roughly equivalent to the area taken up by 90 million Manhattan city blocks. Recently, about 50 polar bears invaded the Russian town of Belushya Guba because their arctic sea ice habitat had so drastically decreased in size.

We don’t have time to waste arguing whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring or whether scientists agree—it is, and they do. This should be common knowledge by now. We will see consequences of mass fossil fuel combustion sooner than we’d expect, and we can’t keep brushing the issue away by claiming consensus hasn’t been reached. It has.