Does Climate Literacy Matter?

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Daniel P Bedford, Weber State University, Geography, Ogden, UT, United States
One obstacle to climate science education is the perception that climate literacy plays little or no role in the formation of opinions about the reality and seriousness of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or that members of the non-specialist public already know enough climate science to hold an informed opinion. Why engage in climate science education if climate literacy does not matter? The idea that resistance to or dismissal of the findings and policy implications of climate science can be addressed simply by providing more and better information—the ‘deficit model’—has been heavily critiqued in recent years. However, the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction, with the view that information deficits either do not exist or are not relevant at all to attitude formation, and that cultural perspectives are sufficient by themselves to explain attitudes to AGW.

This paper briefly reviews several recent publications that find a correlation between higher levels of climate literacy and greater acceptance of or concern about AGW, then presents results from a survey completed by 458 students at a primarily undergraduate institution in northern Utah in April-May 2013. These data indicate that attitudes to AGW are largely tribal, based on political outlook, Democrats being more concerned, Republicans less concerned. Overall levels of climate literacy demonstrated by respondents were low, but concern about AGW increased with higher levels of climate literacy among Republicans—though not among Democrats, for whom acceptance of AGW appears to be more an article of faith or badge of identity. Findings such as this suggest that, contrary to some recent critiques of the deficit model, information deficits do exist and do matter for opinion formation on AGW, although cultural factors are clearly also of great importance. Climate science education therefore can potentially help engage members of the public in issues related to AGW.