Students' Understanding of Climate Change: Insights for Scientists and Educators

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Teachers and meteorologists are among the most respected purveyors of scientific information to the public. As such, they can play an influential role in educating the public about basic atmosphere-related phenomena. To better fulfill this educational role, it is necessary to (i) identify and (ii) correct people's major misconceptions about climatic and atmospheric issues, including global climate change. This paper reports the results of a survey of high school students' knowledge and attitudes about climate change. The authors use open-ended survey questions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the range of “mistakes” that are made. The results show misconceptions including inflated estimates of temperature change, confusion between ozone depletion and global warming, the perception of warmer weather and a belief that all environmentally harmful acts cause climate change. Also discussed is the origin of these mistakes from the perspective of current social scientific literature. It is suggested that these misconceptions arise from low levels of information, reliance on the televised news media, use of judgmental heuristics, confusion between weather and climate, and “fuzzy environmentalism,” wherein students perceive disparate environmental harms as significantly interrelated. The study also reveals that students have a very high level of trust in scientists and teachers. This suggests a role for scientists and educators through which they help correct misconceptions about climate change and ensure that people adopt effective environmentally protective measures.

* Science and Public Policy Program and Department of Political Science, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

+Department of Environmental Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

Corresponding author address: M. V. Rajeev Gowda, Science and Public Policy Program, University of Oklahoma, 100 E. Boyd, Room S202, Norman, OK 73019.

Teachers and meteorologists are among the most respected purveyors of scientific information to the public. As such, they can play an influential role in educating the public about basic atmosphere-related phenomena. To better fulfill this educational role, it is necessary to (i) identify and (ii) correct people's major misconceptions about climatic and atmospheric issues, including global climate change. This paper reports the results of a survey of high school students' knowledge and attitudes about climate change. The authors use open-ended survey questions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the range of “mistakes” that are made. The results show misconceptions including inflated estimates of temperature change, confusion between ozone depletion and global warming, the perception of warmer weather and a belief that all environmentally harmful acts cause climate change. Also discussed is the origin of these mistakes from the perspective of current social scientific literature. It is suggested that these misconceptions arise from low levels of information, reliance on the televised news media, use of judgmental heuristics, confusion between weather and climate, and “fuzzy environmentalism,” wherein students perceive disparate environmental harms as significantly interrelated. The study also reveals that students have a very high level of trust in scientists and teachers. This suggests a role for scientists and educators through which they help correct misconceptions about climate change and ensure that people adopt effective environmentally protective measures.

* Science and Public Policy Program and Department of Political Science, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.

+Department of Environmental Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

Corresponding author address: M. V. Rajeev Gowda, Science and Public Policy Program, University of Oklahoma, 100 E. Boyd, Room S202, Norman, OK 73019.
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