University of New Hampshire professor of sociology and occasional guest blogger on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog, Lawrence 'Larry' Hamilton, is doing ongoing research into the public perception of what's going on in the Arctic (I've written about his work previously here and here).
In anticipation of a new research paper that is about to be published in Polar Geography, Larry has written an article for ARCUS to explain what it's about:
Tracking Public Knowledge and Perceptions About the Arctic
By: Lawrence C. Hamilton, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire
The U.S. public knows that something is happening in the Arctic. It involves melting ice, because that has been mentioned in so many news accounts and scientific reports. But where exactly is that ice? Is it still melting? What might that mean for people who live far away? On such points public awareness becomes fuzzy, with some people's perceptions shaped by their ideology instead of geographic or scientific knowledge. These findings emerge from research that has been asking Arctic knowledge questions alongside the usual public opinion or political items on national or statewide surveys.
The first research of this type involved the General Social Survey (GSS), a flagship nationwide instrument supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation. In 2006 and again in 2010, the GSS carried a "polar module" of questions assessing levels of public knowledge about polar regions, and concern about polar climate change. Analysis of those surveys found that knowledge improved slightly from 2006 to 2010, while levels of concern stayed about the same—and were strongly divided in terms of ideology (Hamilton 2008; Hamilton, Cutler and Schaefer 2012a). Ideological divisions prove to be so strong they actually reverse the effects of objectively tested science literacy. Concern about polar climate change tends to increase as science literacy rises among people who self-identify as liberal or moderate. Among the most conservative, however, concern about polar climate change tends to decrease as science literacy rises (Hamilton, Cutler and Schaefer 2012b).
The GSS results inspired a second generation of polar survey research asking more specific questions. In this note we look at one example about Arctic ice:
Which of the following three statements do you think is more accurate? Over the past few years, the ice on the Arctic Ocean in late summer...
- Covers less area than it did 30 years ago.
- Declined but then recovered to about the same area it had 30 years ago.
- Covers more area than it did 30 years ago.
- Don't know/no answer.
New Hampshire surveys from 2011 to 2015 tracking public awareness of Arctic sea ice area decline: (A) all respondents, and (B) separated by beliefs about climate change. Image courtesy of L. Hamilton.
Sixty-eight percent of those responding to a 2011 national version of the Community and Environment in Rural America survey (NCERA) knew or guessed the correct answer—ice area has declined. In fact, since 2007 the extent of Arctic sea-ice in September remains over a million square kilometers lower than it was 30 years before. Public recognition of this striking change, however, varies with political orientation and with beliefs about climate change. For example, 80 percent of the NCERA respondents who personally agree with the scientific consensus that climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities, answered the sea ice question correctly. On the other hand, only 32 percent of those who think climate change is not happening answered this question correctly. On this and other factual questions, it seems likely that many people chose answers derived from their more general beliefs about climate change (Hamilton 2012).
Read the rest of the article here.