Woods Institute surveys public on climate change preparation

April 11, 2013, 11:31 p.m.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Woods Institute for the Environment in collaboration with the Center for Ocean Solutions, a majority of Americans are in favor of preparing for climate change—but less than half of those surveyed want the government to pay for it.

Professor of Communication and Political Science Jon Krosnick directed the survey, which was the first in-depth study of American attitudes about climate change.

The survey collected 1,174 responses online through the Knowledge Network platform in March 2013. Separate survey results for respondents in New York and California will be released in the near future, as the researchers purposefully oversampled these areas in order to more closely analyze the results.

According to Lauren Howe Ph.D. ’17, who was involved in creating the survey questions, the survey’s main purpose was to gain a better understanding of the level of public support for adaptation policies in dealing with climate change.

“Traditionally, when people think about global warming, they think, ‘Okay we need to reduce greenhouse gases, what can we do to reduce emissions?’” Howe said. “The way the scientific community is starting to think about things is, ‘Okay we need to prepare for what we know is going to happen.’”

Seventy-three percent of survey respondents predicted that a future rise in the sea level will be a serious problem, and only 16 percent of the public said they would want to wait until the effects of climate change directly impact them before taking action.

“The results suggest that Americans are very supportive of preparing for the effects of sea level rise and storms likely to be induced by climate change,” Krosnick said. “The least support appeared for policy approaches that involved trying to fight Mother Nature, building concrete walls or putting more and more sand along the coastline to keep the oceans back.”

The majority of the survey respondents—62 percent—said that building codes should be strengthened for coastal structures, while 52 percent wanted to enact measures preventing new construction on the coast.

The results also reveal that 82 percent of Americans are supportive of preparing for the effects of sea-level rise and storms, but only 38 percent believe that the government should pay for it. Sixty percent said that people living or running businesses along the coastline should be responsible for funding preparation efforts.

“If they choose to be [on the coastline], they choose to place themselves in harm’s way,” Krosnick said. “The message from the survey is that after the government does this work, the government should pay for it by increasing the property taxes of people and businesses along the coasts rather than increasing everyone’s taxes.”

According to Krosnick, another important part of the survey examined how scientists communicate their findings. He noted that scientists are often asked to “predict the future,” and can be hesitant to discuss the uncertainty regarding the possible effects of climate change.

Howe said that the researchers found that a scientific acknowledgment of the lack of precise data “enhances people’s trust in scientists and support for adaptation policy,” as long as the uncertainty is within established boundaries.

For example, the researchers found that scientists would likely elicit a positive response for providing a range of numbers that the sea levels could rise by, but would receive a more negative response by admitting that they don’t know how damaging a potential storm could be.

“There is psychological research suggesting that people can be overwhelmed with the extent of fear you can create from a message,” Krosnick said. “If you phrase it in too threatening of a way, people’s defenses kick in and they don’t respond positively to it.”

Adina Abeles, director of education at the Center for Ocean Solutions, also worked closely with the Woods Institute to write survey questions. One of Abeles’ areas of focus was “soft engineering approaches” to rising sea levels, such as using natural habitats to protect the coastline.

Although this survey is only the start of measuring attitudes with regards to adaptation changes, Abeles was optimistic about the responses that the researchers received.

“People really are willing and interested in preparing for a future with climate change, and I think that reflects other results from different surveys that are showing that people are more aware generally about climate change and its impact,” she said. “I think we’re noticing a good shift in how the public is thinking about climate change.”

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