A Surprising Climate Knowledge Deficit

The public doesn’t know basic facts, but better news coverage could make a big difference

Source: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication / Data for Good at Meta / Rare's Center for Behavior & the Environment; 2023

This week’s Climate Beat included a broken link to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication study. The link has been corrected below.

Most people don’t know as much about climate change as they think they do. That’s according to a landmark survey published this week by the Yale Program on Climate Communications, the gold standard in international polling about climate change.

More than half of respondents in Europe, the US, and Japan say that they know “a lot” or “a moderate amount” about climate change. Yet far less than half of respondents said, correctly, that climate change is caused “mostly by human activities” rather than by “natural changes in the environment. (In truth, climate change is caused almost entirely by human activities, primarily the burning of oil, gas, coal, and other fossil fuels.)

Meanwhile, roughly four in every 10 people, mostly in developing countries, do not even know the term “climate change.” Once it’s explained, however, they say in overwhelming proportions that climate change is happening all around them.

Yale’s findings are a wake-up call that journalism has to redouble its efforts to tell this story “so people get it,” as the eminent US journalist Bill Moyers said when helping to launch Covering Climate Now in 2019.

We may think we’ve told people more than once that climate change is real, human-caused, and happening now — and that by now they should get it. And some coverage has identified fossil fuel burning as the chief culprit. But clearly this point hasn’t sunk in with broad swaths of the public.

If people are unaware of such foundational facts, how can they possibly know that scientists consider the climate crisis an emergency, that rapidly phasing out of fossil fuels is imperative to preserving a livable planet, and that humanity has all the tools it needs to tackle this emergency?

The public’s climate knowledge deficit is most pronounced, and most tragic, in the places most at risk. “We estimate that … 2 billion adults worldwide still know little to nothing about climate change,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, told Covering Climate Now. “And these are often the most vulnerable [people], who have contributed the least to the problem, but are getting hit first and worst by the impacts. But when we give respondents a single sentence description of climate change, we find that more than 80% immediately say, ‘Yes, that’s happening.’”

Leiserowitz’s statement hints at a silver lining: The public’s knowledge deficit is easily remedied by providing accurate, readily understood information, and by meeting audiences where they are.

Journalists can do that by meeting our audiences where they actually are, never assuming they remember or should know something from our previous reporting. Let’s not be afraid to offer refreshers on basic climate facts. And let’s remember the advice of Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy: The most important thing people can do about climate change is talk about it, because talk is the precursor to action — and “who’s the number one person who can talk about it? You. The news media has an unprecedented platform to tell people the stories that we need to hear.”

From Us

COP28. Visit CCNow’s new COP28 Resource Hub, which includes our COP28 Reporting Guide, related webinars, and curated partner stories, as well as other resources to help journalists report on the UN climate summit.

Disinformation. Watch our press briefing co-hosted with Climate Action Against Disinformation (CAAD), a coalition of NGOs researching mis- and disinformation in the climate space, about disinformation narratives to watch out for at COP28.

We’re hiring! CCNow is recruiting an Associate Audience Editor and a Regional TV Engagement Coordinator. Learn more.

Noteworthy Stories

US-China Climate Pact. The world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the US and China, have pledged to strengthen cooperation on methane reduction and accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. “This definitely puts wind in the sails heading into COP,” said Lisa Friedman, who’s long covered climate negotiations between the two countries. By David Gelles at The New York Times…

US assessment. The new National Climate Assessment finds that the US is warming faster than the global average, with climate impacts expected to intensify over the next decade. US emissions are falling but not fast enough to meet international climate goals to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. By Oliver Milman at the Guardian…

Grist produced a series of stories based on the new National Climate Assessment. They are available for republication (with the exception of images). The first two stories start off with introductory text before highlighting specific regions. Outlets can republish just the intro and copy for a single specific region. For amended copy, contact Grist’s Rachel Glickhouse.

  • Climate change threatens Americans’ way of life in every region, the assessment found. Grist digs into the key takeaways for each area of the country.
  • Communities across the country are taking action to adapt to climate change and implement solutions, in some cases addressing systemic inequalities. Grist unpacks how every region is taking action.
  • The assessment underscores the disproportionate impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples, rooted in land theft and colonization. Grist unpacks its recommendation for Indigenous self-determination as a key climate solution.

Carbon capture conflict. There is a surge in proposed carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects across the US. Backers of the projects claim to be listening to community groups that oppose the controversial projects, but local communities say that’s not happening. Dana Drugmand looked into a number of these projects for DeSmog…

Via Twitter (aka X)

A new Reuters Institute report explores how people in eight countries — Brazil, France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, the UK, and the US — access climate news. Check out the report’s key findings.

Reports & Events

Climate report card. Global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are “failing across the board” and an “enormous acceleration in effort” is needed, according to a new report by the World Resources Institute, Bezos Earth Fund, Climate Action Tracker, ClimateWorks Foundation, and the UN Climate Change High-Level Champions. The report details actions needed in each sector, including power, finance, transport, and more. Read the report.

COP geopolitics. Clean Energy Wire is hosting a panel discussion with experienced COP reporters to help journalists think about how to cover the summit in a changing geopolitical landscape. November 21. RSVP.

Solutions responsibility. Fetisov Journalism Awards is hosting a webinar on the role of the news media in disseminating information, analyzing challenges, and uncovering climate solutions. November 27. RSVP.

Climate adaptation. Earth Journalism Network will hold a webinar about reporting on adaptation and resilience at COP28. November 28. RSVP.

Methane leaks. SciLine is holding a press briefing on abandoned oil and gas wells across 27 US states, including where they are and the environmental benefits of capping them. November 30. RSVP.

Jobs, Etc.

Jobs. The Associated Press is hiring a newsperson (philanthropy reporter, disaster relief & recovery). China Dialogue is looking for an Asia-Pacific editor. Mongabay is recruiting a researcher for their solutions desk. The Third Pole is hiring an Asia-Pacific editor. National Geographic is hiring for two digital video positions: video editor and video coordinator.

Internships. NBCU is accepting applications for its summer 2024 intern program. The Associated Press is seeking summer 2024 interns for a variety of positions.

Grants. Earth Journalism Network is offering media organizations up to $15,000 for projects that address environmental news fatigue and promote better public engagement with climate media in the Asia-Pacific region. Apply by December 3.

Fellowships. The Pulitzer Center is accepting applications for its Rainforest Investigations Network reporting fellowships for experienced investigative journalists who have covered the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Southeast Asia regions. Apply by December 20.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT is now accepting applications for its nine-month, full-time fellowship. Fellows will live in the Boston/Cambridge area and attend field trips, seminars, and required training sessions. Apply by January 15.