Public Awareness

public awareness IN the United States of the issue of global warming increased from about one-third in the early 1980s to near 100 percent 25 years later. By 2007, climate change was featured in the media almost daily. Awareness does not necessarily imply acceptance; although polls indicate that over half of Americans consider climate change to be real, there remains widespread public uncertainty about the degree to which human activities are involved, and to what extent CO2 emissions need to be curtailed. There also remain widespread misconceptions about the meaning of global warming, and likely effects.

Public acceptance of human-induced climate change as a real phenomenon has lagged well behind the scientific consensus. In the mid-1970s, the popular media widely reported that the Earth was cooling and may be entering the next glacial interval, accelerated by light reflected off atmospheric particulates from pollution. The reports were based on the ideas of several scientists espoused primarily outside peer-reviewed literature. By the late 1970s, scientific consensus emerged from early generation global climate models that the warming influence of greenhouse gases was stronger than the cooling influence of par-ticulates and insolation change. Scientific evidence that the climate was warming first received major coverage in a 1981 front-page article in the New York Times. Considerable advances in scientific understanding of current and past climate change occurred in the 1980s; this received enhanced public recognition with the 1988 congressional testimony by clima-tologists that coincided with a record hot summer.

As calls for government controls to reduce greenhouse gases increased, climate change discussions and media coverage of it grew politicized. In the 1990s, media, in efforts to offer "balanced" reporting, covered a small number of climate change skeptics in roughly equal proportion to the scientific consensus that climate is warming, which had grown to close to 100 percent in peer-reviewed scientific literature. The public was thereby given the impression that a considerable scientific controversy still existed. Debate about U.S. participation in the international Kyoto Accord in late 1997 and again in 2001 further increased politicization of the issue.

Several events in the mid-2000s swung U.S. public opinion from simple awareness of the issue to greater acceptance that global warming was happening. During this time, skeptics also changed stances, from whether climate change was happening to whether humans were causing observed changes. The severe hurricane season of 2005 (in particular, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) centered U.S. public attention on potential domestic human and financial costs of climate change. Al Gore's 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, one of the most watched documentaries of all time, stimulated a groundswell of activity to further increase awareness, though to some degree maintaining the politicization of the issue. Several very warm years globally during the 2000s also helped give climate change greater reality to a broader geographic segment of U.S. citizens accustomed to hearing about warming in other areas of the world.

factors that make public understanding of climate change difficult

Scale: It is difficult for most people to grasp: scales of space the size of the Earth and its atmosphere; scales of time that include analyzing data from thousands of years in the past and up to decades or centuries into the future; and scales of human influence that involve billions of people, each contributing some quantity of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Complexity: Climate is a complex system that is difficult for any one person, even specialists, to understand in total; in global warming, some places cool, which is why climate change is now the preferred term; spatial and temporal variability in weather systems means that even places that are warming on average may be occasionally unusually cold; in some places climate change is manifested more by precipitation change than temperature change.

Models and uncertainty: Computer models of climate are complex sets of mathematical equations that are "black boxes" for most of the public, and even many scientists; it can be confusing that different results occur for different researchers' models, as is evaluating the probability of events decades in the future, contingent on human actions in the meantime.

Personal reality: In many places climate change may not be readily evident from casual neighborhood observations; changes at the poles may seem personally irrelevant; warming may sound attractive in cooler climates.

Personal beliefs: Spiritual or philosophical beliefs may indicate that the Earth does not change, that humans need not concern themselves with personal influence on the Earth, or that near-term spiritual events on Earth will render changes to the Earth meaningless.


Many efforts have developed in recent years to go beyond increasing public awareness, to educate the public on the nature of climate change and what can be done about it. The former is especially the purview of science education and the latter of personal and governmental action. Few K-12 school curricula have climate change as a major topic, though building block concepts such as greenhouse warming may be found in Earth and environmental courses at the high school level. Professional development for teachers at the state and national level may be needed in large numbers in the coming decades. Nonformal educational groups such as Scouts and 4-H are alternative settings for introducing climate education to youth. Major research partnerships such as Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) provide opportunities to collect data for scientific research that is relevant to climate change. Many colleges and universities are developing campus sustainability models and associated student action groups and courses.

Some organizations of informal education, such as museums and science centers, are in a good position to present public climate change education to a wide range of age groups. The International Polar Year (2007-09) provided an opportunity to present outreach associated with research on polar processes, including polar warming. Many grassroots groups have started in towns and cities across the United States to provide information on climate change to local citizens, particularly on how to take action to reduce CO2 emissions. Among the most influential means of informal education remain radio and television documentaries on the topic.

sEE ALsO: An Inconvenient Truth; Education; Gore, Albert, Jr.; Media, Internet; Media, TV; United States.

bibliography. Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale, 2006); K.R. Stamm, Fiona Clark, and P.R. Eblacas, "Mass Communication and Public Understanding of Environmental Problems: The Case of Global Warming," Public Understanding of Science (v.9, 2000); Spencer Weart, "The Public and Climate Change," American Institute of Physics,www. (cited September 2007).

Robert M. Ross Warren D. Allmon Paleontological Research Institution

Qatar located IN THE Persian Gulf, the State of Qatar has a land area of 4,416 sq. mi. (11,437 sq. km.), with a population of 841,000 (2006 est.), and a population density of 192 people per sq. mi. (74 people per sq. km.). With massive prosperity from the petroleum industry and from the production of natural gas, some 90 percent of Qatar's population lives in urban areas. Only one percent of the country is arable, with a further five percent used for meadows and pasture, with the country having no forests or woodland.

Qatar has the highest rate of carbon dioxide emissions per capita, and one of the highest in the world as far back as 1950. In 1990, it was measured at 22.5 metric tons per person, rising dramatically to 37.4 metric tons per person, dramatically increasing to 55.3 metric tons in 1992. It rose steadily, reaching 69.2 percent in 2004, considerably more than the second highest per capita emitter, Kuwait, which reached a peak of 38 metric tons in 2004. This high level comes from the use of natural gas for electricity generation, all electricity coming from the use of fossil fuels. Electricity usage remains high, with heavy use of air conditioning, and also the running of a large desalination plant.

Gaseous fuels account for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, with liquid fuels making up a further 19 percent. The generation of electricity contributes 28 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, with other energy industries making up 32 percent, and manufacturing and construction another 32 percent. In spite of its small size, transportation accounts for 8 percent of the emissions, a result of a wealthy economy that has a large private ownership of automobiles, and gasoline is cheap.

The Qatar government took part in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in Rio de Janeiro in May 1992. They accepted the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on January 11, 2005, with it entering into force on April 11, 2005.

SEE ALSo: Automobiles; Oil, Consumption of; Oil, Production of.

BIBLIoGRAPHY. "Qatar—Climate and Atmosphere," www. (cited October 2007); M.A. Weaver, "Revolution from the Top Down," National Geographic (v.203/3, 2003).

Robin S. Corfield Independent Scholar

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