Climate Change Science and Public Awareness

Ronald L. Sass
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Rice University

Conceptualization of Climate Change Science

Climate change science has moved from being a part-time passion for a few dedicated scientists several decades ago to becoming one of the major scientific enterprises in the world today. Its roots can be directly traced back to the work of Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist, who, in 1896, advanced a theory of how carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of coal would lead to global warming. By the late 1950’s work on the atmospheric absorption of infra-red radiation and the distribution of carbon dioxide between the atmosphere and the oceans had advanced to the point where Arrhenius’s predictions proved probable and global warming became a legitimate science. By the early 1980’s, enough science had been accomplished world-wide to move the US National Academy of Science to report that a doubling of the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could eventually warm the Earth by 3 to 8 degrees C.

The US Environmental Protection Agency study in 1983 stated that as a result of this warming "agricultural conditions will be significantly altered, environmental and economic systems potentially disrupted, and political institutions stressed." Two years later a conference sponsored by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the International Council of Scientific Unions ended in a consensus in the international scientific community on the issue of climate change. It warned that future warming appears inevitable due to emissions of greenhouse gases and recommended consideration of a global treaty to address climate change. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC) was established by the UNEP and WMO. It was made up of leading climate scientists from around the world and was charged with assessing the scientific and economic basis of climate change policy. Since that time the number of scientific investigators in climate change research has increased exponentially along with government funding for climate change research. In the US alone, the total budget for climate change research exceeded a billion dollars in FY2000 and increased by 50% in FY2001. Many other countries have active climate change programs with significant budgets.

Today climate change science is highly international and diverse. Through organizations such as the IPCC it is committed to providing objective answers to scientific questions to decision-makers in governments, businesses and to other interested organizations throughout the world. Because of the inquiry based nature of science and the inherent complexity of the Earth system, these answers are not always easily translated into the language and structure of government and business policy. How to move from the ideas of science into the actions of policy remains a daunting task for both the scientist and for the policy maker, particularly in the area of global climate change where economics and culture often play major roles.

Global change science, or more generally, Earth systems science, is a complex, interdisciplinary enterprise. Although interdisciplinary programs in Earth system science have recently been created in a few universities, most current practitioners have been trained in traditional disciplinary programs--as geologists, atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, chemists, physicists, biologists, meteorologists, etc. As such, individual scientists tend to focus on those aspects of the subject that are most closely related to his or her background discipline. This focus is reflected in much of the research that has been accomplished in the past half century.

A coherent synthesis of the efforts of individual scientists into a unified picture of the Earth’s climate system may be likened to the self-assembly of a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The assembly starts with a few pieces that do not appear to be connectable. A few more pieces are added and some appear to join one-another. In time, new puzzle pieces are formed as some older ones are discarded. New configurations of pieces are continuously created or destroyed as new ideas are developed and older concepts are modified or discarded. Imagine a group of "atmospheric" pieces forming part of the puzzle while a separate group of "biological" pieces form another part. As new pieces are created, some join these two groups and cause them to reassemble as a single concept of "atmosphere-biosphere" interaction. Slowly, larger and larger aggregates of the picture emerge--jagged, somewhat unconnected and always incomplete, but suggestive. Without a complete picture, the progress of the puzzle is compared with observations of world conditions to obtain a hint of what further pieces of information need to be developed and incorporated.

The task of synthesizing new and combining known informational pieces of the puzzle is managed with the aid of dozens of different complex mathematical models. The most advanced of these models, about 20 located around the world, require supercomputers to handle simulations of the coupled systems of atmosphere, oceans, vegetation and soils, changing ice and volcanic activity as well as emissions of heat-trapping gases and aerosols added to the system by human activity. These model results are compared with the current picture of the climate as well as what is known from the past. More importantly, they are used to predict the future climate under a variety of scenarios, not only because of natural changes in the system but also through estimates of change influenced by human activity. Because of the complexity of the earth system, all of these models suffer from computational limitations and uncertainties about the science, as well as the unpredictability of future human behavior, including the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Hence, researchers continue to debate how reliable their projections are and what needs to be done to improve the models. Such debates can be confusing to the general public who expect certainty from scientists. Even so, as the puzzle develops in time it is the job of the involved scientists to interpret the emerging picture to others who need to have an accurate understanding of the results.

The Reality of Public Information about Climate Change Science

Have scientists been successful in communicating the importance of global change science to others? If by others, one means the general US public, the answer at first appears to be yes. Public awareness of global warming is at an all time high. For example, in a recent Harris poll (August 10-14, 2000), 89 percent of those questioned stated that they have seen, heard or read about the theory of global warming-that average temperatures are rising slowly and will continue to rise mainly because of the burning of coal, oil and other fuels. Seventy-two percent believed the theory that increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming and an increase in average temperatures. Forty-six percent thought that the possibility of global warming should be treated as a very serious problem and 39 percent as a somewhat serious problem.

Other polls have produced similar figures. In a Gallup Poll taken March 5-7, 2001, 61% of Americans said they believed that increases in the earth’s temperature are due to human activities while 33% believed increases in temperature to be due to natural causes. When asked how well do you feel you understand the issue of global warming, 69% answered very well or fairly well. This increase in perceived understanding was up from 61% in 1997 and 53% in 1992. Interestingly, there was a similar increase in the percentage of Americans who felt that scientists believe global warming is occurring — 61% in 2001, up from 48% in 1997. Although the majority of Americans answered that reports of the seriousness of global warming are either correct or underestimated (66%), only 31% thought that global warming will pose a serious threat to themselves or their way of life, up from 25% in 1997 (Gallop Poll Analyses, 2001).

But does the American public really possess an understanding of global warming and other related environmental issues? The 1999 NEEFT/Roper Environmental Report Card, the country’s most known environmental poll, asked approximately 1500 Americans over the age of 18 what they understood and felt about various environmental issues. The report concludes that Americans are largely unprepared to play a role in evaluating whether proposed environmental laws and regulations make sense, in determining what new policies are needed, in supporting government regulations and policies and in claiming information that it is the public’s right to know. While the report gave the public an A+ in supporting the environment and an A for willingness to work toward balanced solutions, it also gave the public a grade of F for understanding the causes of basic environmental problems in the 21st century. Americans are not prepared for our environmental future. Fewer than one in nine Americans gets a passing score of 60% on knowledge of issues likely to be major problems in the next 15-25 years. Just 1 in 25 scored 70% or above in a quiz of environmental knowledge. On average, Americans answered just three multiple-choice questions right on a ten-question quiz about issues in the next century. (NEEFT/Roper 1999, pp. 2-3).
John Immerwahr of Villanova University/Public Agenda conducted an in depth analysis of public attitudes on topics of concern to the American Geophysical Union, including global warming. Focus groups in five different cities (Washington, Charleston, Los Angeles, Des Moines, and Phoenix) indicated there is no public consensus on what to do about global warming. The study suggested a number of reasons why:

  1. Most people do not really understand global warming. While people have a general idea that there is a problem with something called ozone and it is caused by pollution, they identify ozone rather than carbon dioxide as the major cause for the increase in the Earth's temperature and perhaps the cause of weather instability. They clearly have no idea what the terms mean or what human activities contribute to which problem. Public knowledge is also, in some cases, outmoded or inaccurate and people often confuse problems, such as depletion of the ozone layer with global warming or acid rain.
  2. There is no publicly accepted creditable source of reliable information. Clearly the scientific community has not conveyed a sense of unanimity on the subject of global warming. A 1997 Gallup survey found that only 42% of the public believes that scientists mostly believe that global warming is a real threat; the public is just as likely (44%) to say that scientists are divided on the issue.
  3. The public believes that the real cause of global warming is human greed. The biggest factor that derails any kind of consensus about dealing with global warming is the analysis that people have of the underlying cause of global warming. While focus group respondents tended to say that global warming is caused by deforestation and pollution, they were also quick to point out that the underlying cause is human greed and moral corruption. When thinking about global warming, in other words, respondents typically saw it as being driven by humans who are unwilling to do the right thing, that is a seemingly irreversible deterioration in moral values. What was said, over and over again, was that people have become more self-centered, greedy and materialistic, and as a result, the society is inevitably pushed toward more consumption, which in turn causes more pollution and exacerbates the trend toward global warming. (Immerwahr 1999, pp. 8-12).

Immerwahr’s findings clearly show that the American public’s position on global warming is one of resignation and frustration without a clear mode of action. There is consensus that a problem exists, but no sense that scientists have given them an understandable interpretation of the nature of the problem. Nor is there a perception that our national leaders understand how to solve the problem. As a result people are deeply concerned about the problem, but their concern translates into frustration rather than support for action. His study points to three issues that need to be resolved for the American people: Immerwahr states

"Why is there the difference between engagement and stalemate? There are at least three factors that are important to the process. First, the public must be convinced that the issue is a real one, either because they believe the messages they are hearing from leadership or because they see the effects of the problem with their own eyes. Merely being convinced of the importance of the problem, however, does not in itself guarantee engagement. Second, the public needs choices for how to deal with a problem and the chance to think through the implications of those choices. Increasing the public's sense of concern about the problem only increases their frustration, not their willingness to deal with the problem. Finally, people need to feel that effective solutions are available, and, if followed, will actually make a difference" (Immerwahr 1999, p. 24).

That Does the Public Want from Climate Change Sciencists?

Immerwahr’s study does end with a strong indication of what needs to be done to address these issues. The research suggests that there is a potential pool of interest and support for doing something to deal with global warming but currently the public is not really engaged nor do people have a sense that they have an active role to play. His analysis concludes that the public is waiting for at least two signals from scientists and the leadership of government and business:

  1. Credible signals from the scientific community. As one member of the PIC [American Geophysical Union Public Information Committee] remarked, scientists are trained to dispute and debate on the theory that scientific progress can emerge from vigorous disagreements. What works well within the scientific community, however, does not necessarily communicate to the public. The public has been battered back and forth by conflicting scientific theories. What the public needs to hear from the scientific community is a greater sense of agreement about what is known.
  2. A sense of efficacy. As we have said earlier, informing the public of the problems can increase frustration and apathy rather than build support. Our research suggests that what the public is most skeptical about is not the existence of problems but our ability to solve them. What will make the public invest energy in these issues is not the conviction that the problems are real, but that we can do something about them. Currently, the public tends to vary between thinking either that there is no solution, or that the problems can be painlessly solved without behavioral changes from most people. What they need to hear, if attitudes are to change, is that there are real solutions which require energy, but that can make a difference. (Immerwahr 1999, pp. 24-25).

It may reasonably be argued that global climate change has emerged over the past several years as the most intensely researched and publicized scientific issue ever. Many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to understand its causes and processes. A multitude of modeling efforts has been undertaken in order to understand past and to anticipate future climatic conditions. Considerable energy has been expended to predict the associated ecological, social and economic impacts of anticipated climate change and to develop appropriate local, regional and global responses. Despite the abundance of expert knowledge and growing consensus among scientists on this topic, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase and societal vulnerability to climate variability and change remains high. Even more alarming is the fact that in spite of high public awareness and concern, public knowledge and public action remain low to non-existent. This condition raises questions about the effectiveness of past and present efforts by scientists to communicate relevant and appropriate information about their research to the public and to the various decision makers in government, business, and elsewhere. It also raises questions about the form that information must take in moving forward the United States climate change agenda.

What are the Conceptual Issues in Understanding Climate Change Science?

All data show that the American public is fully aware of global warming and many profess to know a great deal about it. However, when questioned about the science of global warming, most people reveal that they are not well informed, nor do they have an idea of what they could do about it. In addition, very few people rate any environmental issue as the most important problem facing the country, and, among environmental issues, global warming ranks near the bottom in perceived importance. Yet the potential is present for a change in public opinion on global warming because it is obvious that citizens are not yet fully engaged in the debate. An excellent analysis of how to engage the public can be found in the proceedings of the International Conference on Climate Change Communication held on June 20-34, 2000 in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario Canada. The proceedings can be downloaded in from the University of Waterloo’s publications web site in PDF formate at <>.

In the Plenary paper "Communicating About Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities" Jean Andrey of the University of Waterloo and Linda Mortsch of Environment Canada presented a summary of the salient characteristics of global climate change, defined communication challenges associated with these characteristics, and outlined some guidelines and opprtunities for partially addressing these challenges. A summary outline of their points is presented below:

Issue # 1: Complexity

Characteristic: Global climate change is a complex issue.

Associated Challenge: Citizens are not well informed.

Overcoming the Barriers: We must make prudent choices about communication goals, and build the knowledge base one step at a time.

Issue #2: Uncertainty

Characteristic: There are uncertainties about virtually every aspect of the climate change issue, and these increase as one moves from natural to human systems.

Associated challenges:

  1. The language of global climate change is problematic.
  2. The public has been exposed to scientific debates, often in an overstated way, primarily through the media.
  3. Personal experiences are not always consistent with climatic trends or scientific projections.

Overcoming the Barriers

  1. Choose language that is appropriate to the audience.
  2. Be honest about uncertainties, but focus primarily on the weight of evidence.
  3. Capitalize on situational opportunities.
Issue #3: Nature of Anticipated Effects:

Characteristic: The impacts of climate change will be born disproportionately by people in less developed countries and by future generations.

Associated Challenge: For many of us, global climate change lacks immediacy/urgency.

Overcoming the Barriers:

  1. Advocate the precautionary principle.
  2. Do not avoid ethics/justice issues.

Issue #4: Action

Characteristic: The causes of human-induced climate change are embedded in our present and preferred lifestyles.

Associated Challenges:

  1. The scale of the issue requires unprecedented cooperation.
  2. For individuals, there is a sense of helplessness.
  3. There are more important and/or competing issues.
Overcoming the Barriers:
  1. Put pressure on upper-level governments to create a policy environment that engenders voluntary and sustained action.
  2. Concentrate on what is doable for different groups.
  3. Capitalize on opportunities to piggyback the global climate changeissue on other environmental and social issues.
  4. Do not expect communication alone to solve the problems and/or resolve conflict.

What can Rice University do to address these issues?

So, what can be done? It is clear that there is a serious disconnect, a "climate change knowledge gap", between the public’s understanding of climate change, and its possible implications, and what the experts have concluded about the science. This disconnect makes it difficult for policy makers, who also are not well informed, to discuss possible policy options in a rational manner. Scientists and others need to seek a common ground in order to address this serious problem at the local, regional, and global level.

Institutions like Rice University with the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy must organize to serve as a bridge between science, economics and public policy. Activities must be organized to provide practical scientific knowledge to decision-makers, help to build consensus, and afford scholars, business leaders and government officials a mechanism to reach a common ground for action on public policy issues having to do with global climate change and related environmental matters.

In order to provide some indication of the kinds of issues and questions that might be address, I provide a few examples where either work is already underway or under discussion at Rice. While these sample questions focus on Houston, Texas, and the Gulf Coast region, activities should not be limited to local issues. Public understanding of the science and implications of global climate change should be comprehensive and global.

These and other important issues of locally relavent and timely climate change science and policy could be topics of in depth study by scholars. Expert information from these studies could be disseminated in seminars and symposia held to promote the sharing of information with the general public and policy makers, as well as scientists and engineers in all fields. Topics designed to stimulate ideas and to search for solutions to problems could be addressed in workshops. Workshops would include participants from universities, non-governmental organizations, the media, government, business and industry, insuring that all relevant perspectives are considered when developing possible policy recommendations. Faculty and research scholars would be made available to the media (e.g. op-eds, interviews, and consultation), to community groups, to government agencies, to testify in Congressional or State Legislative Hearings. And finally, a web site would be developed to present the results of these various activities so that information would be generally available to everyone interested in a healthy and sustainable environment.


Gallop Pole Analyses, April 9, 2001, F. Newport and L. Saud, Americans Consider Global Warming Real, but Not Alarming, http.//

The Harris Poll, 2000. Humphrey Taylor, Most People Believe Global Warming is a Serious Problem, Harris Poll #48, August 23, 2000,

Immerwahr, John, 1999. Waiting for a Signal: Public Attitudes toward Global Warming, the environment and Geophysical Research, American Geophysical Union, Electronic Publication,

NEEFT/Roper, 1999. Report Card: Environmental readiness for the 21st Century, The Eighth Annual National Report Card on Environmental Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behavior. December 1999, The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, Washington, DC.