Written by Josh Schwartz (Department of Biology and Health Sciences, PLV) and Anthony Mancini (Department of Psychology, PLV)
Did you ever wonder what your peers thought of an issue that you regarded as really important? Did they share your views, disagree with them vehemently, or were they indifferent? A subject that elicits a range of opinions is climate change. At first blush, this may seem rather surprising because, in the opinion of the vast majority of climate scientists, climate change is underway and is almost certainly the result of human activities. Additionally, many of the anticipated consequences of climate change are profoundly negative. These include dangerous rise of sea levels, declines in agricultural production (although some areas are expected to see increases), increased strength, and perhaps frequency of strong storms such as hurricanes, range shifts of species and extinction of many others. The rise in atmospheric CO2 is making the oceans more acidic and this is impairing the ability of ecologically important marine organisms to build their shells or skeletons. If that’s not bad enough, positive feedbacks and nonlinearities in the climate system may exacerbate the direct temperature effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
Because of the importance of the topic, the fact that there remains considerable ignorance about the underlying science and the contentious nature of the debate in the United States, we conducted, together with Andrea Bozzetto, a former graduate student in environmental science, a survey of students at PaceUniversity. Ross Robak, PhD, of the Psychology Department, Claudia Mausner, PhD, of the Environmental Studies program, and Andrew Revkin of the Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies also helped out. A link to the survey questionnaire was disseminated via email late in the spring semester of 2011. The survey had 40 questions including some on other environmental issues and some on the respondents’ familiarity with programs at Pace designed to reduce the school’s “ecological footprint”. We also collected data on each student’s campus location, political affiliation, major, age, and family income. Here we briefly describe a few of our main findings with the caveat that readers should be aware that there may be inherent biases of the 292 individuals who chose to respond to our request. (You can view the survey results here.)
We were pleased to learn that students’ knowledge of climate change was reasonably good and more than 90% believed that the global climate is warming. For example, most students (71 %) realized that burning of fossil fuels was a major contributor to global warming and understood that there is a difference in the meaning of “climate” and “weather” (86%). However there was confusion about the definitions of climate and weather. Over four-fifths of students were worried about each of the major consequences of global warming. Unfortunately, a high percentage of students (61%) mistakenly believed that the ozone hole also is a major contributor. Ninety-one percent believed that human activities (34%) or a combination of natural phenomena and human activities (57%) are responsible for warming. Seven percent attributed any change solely to natural sources. According to the experts (see the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report), natural factors, such as solar activity, cannot account for the observed warming. A fair number of respondents also exhibited ignorance when asked about responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. Forty-two percent believed that, on a per capita basis, the Chinese emit more CO2 than individuals in theUnited States. Although it is true that China recently passed the U.S. as the nation with the greatest total annual CO2 emissions, the contribution of the average citizen of the U.S. exceeds that of the average citizen of China by a factor of 2.4 (2011 data).
This is an election year, and, as is obvious to anyone who attends to the news, the public position of many Republican politicians (including the Presidential candidate) is that the jury is still out on the reality of climate change and, should it be occurring, its possible causes. Some members of the “Grand Old Party” even go as far as to claim that it is a hoax perpetrated by scientists and left-leaning environmentalists (see Senator Inhofe’s 2012 book: The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future). For that reason, we examined whether political affiliation was associated with the views of Pace students. In fact, affiliation had a statistically significantly effect with Republicans reporting a median concern level of just ~41% that of Democrats or Independents. Unfortunately, because only a relatively small proportion of respondents were Republicans, a more in depth analyses of this association was not possible.
Based upon our survey results, we feel strongly that there is a need at Pace for increased and more effective communication about climate change and other pressing environmental problems. Thirty-nine percent of respondents indicated that they do not carefully follow environmental issues in the news. Surprisingly students majoring in the sciences (including environmental studies but excluding computer science) felt only slightly better informed than non-science majors, although our sample of science majors was small. We also need to more effectively inform students about the significant efforts our university is undertaking to enhance sustainability as there was considerable ignorance in this area. It is our hope that such efforts will increase the number of Pace students who keep abreast of important environmental issues and adopt sustainable lifestyles after graduation.