Climate Literacy Low Across World

One third of people admit they have a poor grasp of the meaning of key climate change terms and as a result are failing to fully understand the severity of the issue, researchers have found.

A major international poll found 33 percent of those asked said that they didn't have a good understanding of key terms surrounding climate change. Fast fashion, carbon offsetting, net zero circular economy and carbon negative were all terms that left survey respondents scratching their heads. However, terms such as climate change, food waste and greenhouse gases were generally well understood. 

Some 67 percent of those asked said they did understand the terms yet, when asked to choose the best answer for the given term, just two thirds of them—61 percent—actually had a good grasp of the terminology they claimed to understand. 

Change Incorporated, part of the Vice Media Group, polled 9,000+ adults in the UK, US, India, Denmark and Spain to gauge the international understanding of how global warming, climate change and rising sea levels are driving seasonal changes and destroying ecosystems.

Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth said the findings are “concerning” and that it is the responsibility of policy makers to communicate the message more effectively and in simpler terms.

FOE climate campaigner, Aaron Kiely, said: “Climate change affects us all, so it’s concerning to think that there are many people out there who don’t have a solid grasp of what’s being discussed in the media. 

“Modern life can be very jargon heavy, but it’s clearly an own goal if, when trying to help people see why habits must change, important information and messages are lost in obscure terms that only a few policy people really understand.”

The public needs far more information on the damage being caused

The environment protest group Extinction Rebellion said the findings indicated there is a need for huge information campaigns by governments—of the kind seen during the Second World War and also in response to the coronavirus pandemic—to better inform the public.

Spokesperson Nuala Gathercole Lam said: “It does not surprise us that this survey indicates the public needs far more information on the damage being caused. It is time for our governments to undertake massive information campaigns as they did in the Second World War, to educate the public on the depth of the crises, what is causing the crises and commission genuine citizens’ assemblies to decide on fair solutions."

These findings show the need for greater public awareness efforts

One of the key findings was that people in the US, which is responsible for the second highest carbon emissions in the world behind China, have the worst understanding of the terminology.

Almost half—43 percent of those polled in the US—said they did not grasp the terms around the issue. Just 57 percent of people in the US claimed to understand the terms. And of those 59 percent actually did, which is in line with the average across the other countries.

By comparison, only 36 percent of people in the UK said they did not understand the terms but of those who claimed to understand 68 percent actually did; well above the US and the international average of 61 percent. Spain is the second most likely country to say it understands the terms—73 percent—but of those only 65 percent did.

Looking at India, people there overestimated their understanding with 75 percent claiming to understand while just 54 percent of those actually did.

Dominic Shales, CEO of Change Incorporated, added: “We are losing one of the greatest battles we have ever faced.

“Temperatures and sea levels are rising. Seasons are getting more extreme, ecosystems destroyed.

“Scanning five nations, speaking with 9,000 adults, this research is an effort to uncover the most common knowns, unknowns and most importantly, misconceptions. To get a better understanding of our lack of understanding we took a look at climate comprehension, literacy, perceptions, attitudes and barriers on an international level.”

The survey findings show the need for greater public awareness efforts, such as the recent Earth Day and bring into focus its purpose which is to raise awareness of the negative impact the actions of mankind have on the environment in the hope it will lead to change.

For download copies of the reports, please email comments@changeincorporated.com.