[Coral-List] Public Perceptions about Climate Change in the USA

Brian Plankis brian at reefstewardshipfoundation.org
Fri Nov 13 16:49:51 EST 2009

Hello coral-listers,

I have been following the very interesting discussion on public perceptions
about climate change (especially about the USA) and finally have a little
bit of time to respond. I especially liked the comments by Dr. John Bruno,
Pam Hallock Muller, and Mary Toy, and have a comment on Curtis Kruer's

I apologize ahead of time, I do not have my database accessible to me at the
moment, so some of my references will be general instead of the specific
articles that support my statements. If anyone wants specific references,
please e-mail me and I'll provide them later.

I have spent a good part of my life researching scientific literacy,
environmental literacy, and the education system in the USA. My input here
is as a science and environmental educator. Part of the enormous problem of
climate change, and the increasing denial crowd, is that climate change and
how it interacts with society is extremely complex. Humanity has a natural
tendency to want to simplify things. For example, one of the reasons Food
Chains have been taught for decades in the public school system instead of
Food Webs is that it is an easier concept for students and teachers to grasp
in the 45 minutes of time they have to spend on it. The problems of climate
change and denial in the USA can't really be addressed in an e-mail, but I
can add a few comments in response to those already made:

1. In response to Dr. Bruno's question "So why are we loosing the public?
They clearly are not being convinced
by evidence. There isn't any in support of the cooling/pause arguments. "

There are a myriad of reasons we are losing the public. One of the major
reasons we are losing the public is a lack of scientific literacy in the
USA, especially environmental literacy and ocean literacy. Roth (1992)
defined three levels of environmental literacy, with the lowest level being
nominal: "Nominal environmentally literate people possess unsophisticated
definitions of environmental literacy and are only able to recognize basic
terms related to environmental systems."

In recent studies, most people in the USA are at or below the nominal
environmentally literate level. Ocean literacy is generally even worse
(Coyle, 2005; Gallup, 2005; Gambro & Switzky, 1996; Hart & Nolan, 1999;
Lambert & Sundburg, 2006; National Environmental Education & Training
Foundation, 2005; PEW Oceans Commission, 2003; Rickinson, 2001; U.S.
Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP), 2004).

For an accessible summary, this one isn't too bad:

The public is vaguely aware of problems, but does not care because they do
not APPEAR relevant to their lives, or at least not as pressing as other
issues. They also expect our schools to educate us properly, which
unfortunately they are not setup to do that, more on that later. I think
what this entire discussion has been about, is "How do we raise the amount
of responsible environmental choices (or behaviors) (REBs) that people take
to protect the environment, especially the oceans and coral reefs?"

This is where the history of environmental education enters the picture, as
well as some psychology. A great deal of research has already been conducted
on this question and should inform efforts to protect the ocean and coral
reefs. A brief summary:

A. Giving people evidence or facts, disconnected from a larger picture or
context, does next to nothing in changing REBs. In fact, it can have quite
the opposite effect of scaring people into inaction or even more consumption
(Kasser & Sheldon, 2000). You need to help people develop skills to cope
with environmental issues and change.

B. Several meta-analyses and research studies (Hart & Nolan, 1999; Klein,
1993; Rickinson, 2001; Zelezny, 1999) suggest that students will only
recognize the important role of civic and personal actions by being actively
involved in relevant, local community environmental problems. (Exactly what
Mary Toy so eloquently said earlier!)

C Previous research on global environmental problems have reported
difficulty in engaging students with global issues (Boyes, Chuckran, &
Stanisstreet, 1993; Boyes & Stanisstreet, 1996, 1997, 1998; Bradley,
Waliczek, & Zajicek, 1999; Connell, Fien, Lee, Sykes, & Yencken, 1999; G.
Myers, Boyes, & Stanisstreet, 2004). The literature states* *that issues
that are complex (Harold R Hungerford & Volk, 1990), surrounded in
uncertainty (Boyes & Stanisstreet, 2001), do not have obvious local
connections or relevance (Hart & Nolan, 1999; Rickinson, 2001) or are not
seen as important to the general public (Belden Russonello & Stewart and
American Viewpoint, 1999; Steel, Smith, Opsommer, Curiel, Warner-Steel,
2005) will lead to difficulty in increasing student understanding,
engagement, and REB.

Climate change has most, or all, of these problems. Even though climate
change is certain, in the public's eye it is surrounded in uncertainty due
to a variety of factors, including the journalistic tendency to want to give
"both sides of an issue."

D. Additionally, it was found in educational interventions that actively
involving participants over longer periods of time was more effective than
passive involvement for short periods of time (Zelezny, 1999).

So, the solution to all of these issues is to engage students and citizens
in long term educational programs that focus on giving them knowledge and
skills to deal with REB.* *

Unfortunately, easier said than done. The EE research overwhelmingly
supports targeting young people in order to impact their environmental ethic
and increase their REB. Most research says elementary school and middle
school, with a little bit of time left for high school and college (think
diminishing returns). The major problem here is that the current "No Child
Left Behind" Act and other state standards do not allow for long term
educational programs, especially for environmental or ocean literacy. The
NCLB act marginalized science education in the classroom, and it was already
declining from all the excellent points that Pam Muller made. Today, less
than 4% of students in the USA even have the OPTION of an environmental
science class in public high school.

So if the system is broken in K-12, that leaves the "freedom" of the
university environment to "fix" students before they enter the working
world. However, most students have already developed their environmental
ethic by the time they enter college.

2. In response to Curtis Kruer's comments: Curtis, you may see the
university environment as where all the money is, but Alina Szmant already
covered most of the problems at the university level. Only a tiny fraction
of the money at the university level is available for environmental
education, science literacy, or scientific research that could help the
ocean and coral reefs. You might consider reading the amazing book "Earth in
Mind" by David W. Orr. The university environment and funding sources are
clearly set up AGAINST environmental protection. I work at a university and
am attempting to carefully navigate this minefield, only time will tell if
I'm successful. I am currently working towards a tenure track position and
of the 150 or so job descriptions I have read, THREE included the word
sustainability. Some universities are better than others, but the majority
are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I would say in most cases
universities want to help, but the system is not setup to support that
desire. It causes me great pain to see poorly designed educational projects
get funded at the million $ + level and the highly effective and cheaper EE
projects rejected.

3. In response to Mike Risk's question "If the most technologically advanced
nation in the world cannot preserve its own coral
what hope is there for those Third World nations that house most of the
remainder?" I would say that there should be more hope for Third World
nations, if educational efforts can be implemented where they are needed
most. Most local and regional stressors to coral reefs are relevant and
local environmental problems, something that the literature says is less
complex to solve, the impacts of climate change and local stressors are
already known, the problems are less complex, and the solutions are usually
less complex. Notice I'm not saying easy, just less complex than global
issues. I hold out more hope for solving local issues to increase reef
resilience than quickly solving global issues.

Back to the original question ""So why are we losing the public?"

The answer is complex, but one part of the answer is pretty simple. In order
for coral reefs and the ocean to be saved we need to change the K-12
educational system with an emphasis on environmental and science literacy,
remake the university system to be focused on sustainability in real and
practical ways, and fight the diminishing returns of attempting to influence
the environmental ethic of adults that grew up in a system that didn't give
them an enviornmental ethic (for the majority of them) with long term
educational programs that make them active participants. Short term
lectures, newspaper articles, and presentations with passive presentation of
data and facts will not solve the problem. You might get a few to change,
but that isn't enough.

What do the deniers have to do? They just have to put out a shotgun spread
of soundbites and easily accessible articles in simple language that can
cause doubt, just enough to get someone to fear change to their lives and
retreat into denial. This can result in an increase of their consumption to
repress their fear of a world that with a drastically altered climate could
endanger their way of living or even their life, or that of their children
and grandchildren.

The deniers have a much easier job. But as others have stated, that doesn't
mean we should quit. There are solutions to these issues out there and we
have to find them. Quickly. I am doing the best I can to help.


Brian Plankis
Reef Stewardship Foundation

Brian Plankis
Reef Stewardship Foundation

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