Denison and the Climate Crisis: Are We Prepared to Make a Better Future?

By Daniel Gunther

Climate change is one of the most pertinent issues facing the world. Food shortages attributable to soil erosion, water deficits and changes in weather are the root cause of many conflicts around the world and will continue to be a primary source of discord and unrest. The question becomes, then, at a place like Denison where climate change won’t have a major impact on the lives of the student body, how important do they think climate is relative to other social issues, how much do they know, and do they think that there’s a chance we can find a global solution? 

The 127 survey from October of about 370 students included a number of questions about climate change. First, we asked survey participants to rank seven different prominent political issues. The figure below shows the percentage of respondents who ranked an issue as the most important and clearly climate change is the plurality winner, followed by racial inequalities. This is at first glance relatively good news for the climate as recognizing the importance of an issue is the first step to solving it.

There’s more good news about the importance of climate change  –  another almost 30% ranked climate change as either their 2nd or 3rd most important issue (see the figure below). Denison students appear to be wide awake about the dangers that climate change poses to life on Earth.

What is less reassuring is how well Denison Students understand some fundamentals about the climate and the natural world. To gauge student knowledge of climate change, we asked them a series of questions of increasing difficulty listed in the next figure below.

A statement as simple as “the last century temperature increase was the greatest in the last 1000 years” was only answered correctly by 54% of respondents, which means that 46% of the respondents believe that the temperature increase in the last 100 years was not as great as in centuries before that. The rest of the questions were known by minorities of the respondents, the worst being a dismal 12.21%. It is arguable whether people need to know that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 but, for instance, would it push more people to eat less meat if they knew since livestock are powerful emitters of methane? Some of the questions also could serve as mechanisms to spread misinformation about greenhouse gasses. Although water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, CO2 is orders of magnitudes more potent in terms of warming. Despite that, consider how dangerous the manipulation of this information could be. If you ignore the potency aspect, a seemingly justified argument could be made that human CO2 emissions don’t greatly change the bulk composition of the atmosphere. At first glance, that’s a fairly convincing argument and could further exacerbate the apathy and misinformation associated with climate change.

With knowledge of specific questions pretty low, it’s no surprise to see that overall climate knowledge is not high. Very few people know nothing, but most respondents know very little. The average score was only 31%. While we recognize how relevant and important the climate crisis is, we don’t, on the whole, have a grasp of some of the most basic concepts and knowledge that environmental scientists and climatologists operate on. This is incredibly distressing. 

To make matters worse, the data does not suggest that there is a major correlation between people’s knowledge of climate change and how they ranked it. People who think it’s the most important issue only got a score of 18% higher than those who ranked it last and just 7% higher than the overall average of 31%. This implies that educating people on the issue will not necessarily make them see it as a priority. The single respondent who scored a 100% on the short climate questionnaire ranked it only as the fourth most important issue to society. This respondent ranked authoritarianism, racial inequality and abortion access higher than climate.

Perhaps one of the reasons why students don’t invest in scientific knowledge is that they don’t believe that we can collectively reach a solution. We asked people how likely it was that the world would be able to find a solution to these issues. Only a minority (44%) believe it is likely that we will solve the climate crisis, and about the same size minority believe it is unlikely (43%). Only 18.5% of participants fall into the realm of a high likelihood or unlikelihood, whereas over 67% fall into the just likely, or unlikely categories. This leaves the impression that there is a degree of uncertainty in respondents.

Lastly, I wanted to see whether the degree to which people understood climate change has any influence on their optimism. The figure below shows almost no relationship between optimism and knowledge. Optimism has no root in knowledge of climate change, although I expected that more understanding would have led to a higher degree of pessimism. One positive to be gleaned is that some of those who answered some of the questions correctly, and thus have a better grasp on the climate crisis, still feel like it’s possible for the world to solve it.

At an American university around 40°N, most students have likely not experienced anything that has negatively impacted their lives ascribable to climate change. Denison students, or more generally, educated Americans are largely what experts have dubbed, “the winners of the climate crisis.” While corporate America contributes more than a quarter of global carbon emissions, Americans, especially educated ones, are not going to suffer. People will often talk about the Syrian refugee crisis as one of the greatest humanitarian emergencies of the 21st century. One can blame it on the Syrian Government and Assad, but that doesn’t get to the core of it. A vast majority of Syrians, now and before the refugee crisis began, were food insecure. Why are they food insecure? Well, global warming has caused the dry areas of the world around 30° latitude to become even hotter and dryer. With a lack of water and a shorter growing season, food has become even scarcer. With scarcity came a need to control. Unfortunately for the Syrians, this came in the form of a violent, totalitarian government. 

The current pledge of the Paris Accords is to limit global carbon emissions so that the average temperature increase around the world will be limited to 1.5°C (just under 3°F). While 1.5°C seems like a small value, one needs to remember that this is a global average, not a discrete value that will be added everywhere around the world. In places around 30° latitude where atmospheric circulation patterns create extremely hot and dry environments, like Syria, this number will be vastly greater than 1.5°C, whereas, in Siberia, the number will be a lot less. 

The sad reality is that the winners of the climate crisis have a lot to learn and prioritize other issues such as authoritarianism over climate, even when many instances of authoritarianism can be linked to resource scarcity or energy availability. The last question I ask, and it is meant to be entirely rhetorical, is, do the other social issues matter as much as the climate crisis if what’s at stake is the habitability of our planet? What takes precedence if people around the world can’t survive, or are forced to abandon where and how they live because of climate change? 

Daniel Gunther is a Junior Geoscience Major with a concentration in computational science. He hopes to spend his career working on issues of resource scarcity related to green energy and climate change.

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