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Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change

Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change

Americans’ Knowledge of Climate Change reports results from a national study of what Americans understand about how the climate system works, and the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to global warming. Among other findings, the study identifies a number of important gaps in public knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change.

Overall, we found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 40 percent would receive a C or D, and 52 percent would get an F. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only: 

  • 57% know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
  • 50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities;
  • 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;
  • 25% have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification. 

Meanwhile, large majorities incorrectly thinkthat the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions. 

However, many Americans do understand that emissions from cars and trucks and the burning of fossil fuels contribute to global warming, and that a transition to renewable energy sources is an important solution. 

In addition, despite the recent controversies over “climategate” and the 2007 IPCC report, this study finds that Americans trust scientists and scientific organizations far more than any other source of information about global warming. 

Americans also recognize their own limited understanding. Only 1 in 10 say that they are “very well informed” about climate change, and 75 percent say they would like to know more about the issue. Likewise, 75 percent say that schools should teach our children about climate change and 68 percent would welcome a national program to teach Americans more about the issue.