Prove your humanity

This story was produced as part of Climate Solutions, a collaboration focused on community engagement and solutions-based reporting to help Central Pennsylvania move toward climate literacy, resilience and adaptation. StateImpact Pennsylvania is a Climate Solutions partner. 

A new poll from Franklin & Marshall College shows few Pennsylvanians are confident in their knowledge of climate change. 

The latest poll asked more than 500 registered voters to say whether seven statements about weather and climate were true or false. For example, “Climate means the average weather conditions in a region” (true) or “Climate and weather mean pretty much the same thing” (false).

Only 7% got them all right. Another 12% got six right. 

Less than a third said they feel “very well informed” about the consequences of global warming. Most people fell in the middle, with 55% saying they feel “fairly well informed” and 14% feeling “not very well informed.” Only 2% said they were “not informed at all.”

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Berwood Yost, who directs the Center for Opinion Research at F&M, said the poll is a first step in trying to understand how familiar people are with climate change.

He said people who scored poorly on the true or false section said they did not feel well informed on climate. People who scored highly said they felt well informed.

“So, people are self-aware, it seems to me. Many of them don’t overestimate their knowledge about climate issues and their need to know more,” Yost said. “So, there’s a clear relationship there that I think is important to understand.”

Little urgency to address climate change

Understanding climate topics doesn’t necessarily mean a person feels they are urgent. 

Eric Rebert, a banker in Lancaster, got all seven true or false questions correct. He said he recognizes the issue, but it’s not a priority for him. 

“I’m 67,” Rebert said. “The people you need to convince are my kids.”

He added he’s not sure climate science is 100% settled. That’s even though the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it is “unequivocal” that human activity has warmed the planet.  The IPCC is urging governments to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  

“We as a society seem to take things to the extreme and that might be our current biggest problem. There seems to be very little middle ground these days,” Rebert said.

More information on solutions

Retired credit card fraud investigator Brenda Clingerman of Hanover got about half of the true or false questions right when going over them with a reporter. She said she feels fairly well informed on the consequences of climate change, but not in ways to reduce global warming. She said she’d like more information on what to do.

“I think I know some, but I’m sure there’s more that I don’t know,” Clingerman said. “If we all don’t start practicing and do what we really need to help and be more well informed, the consequences are going to be tragic in the end.”

Ernest Marano, a bartender in Philadelphia who responded to the poll and feels pretty well informed, said he worries about what climate change will mean for his three young kids, which is why he thinks there should be a big emphasis on education. 

“If people are ignorant to what’s going on around them, they’re not going to be concerned for future generations or even take the time to inform themselves about what’s going on,” Marano said.

Nationwide polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows a recent increase in belief that global warming is happening. Polling of 1,006 people in September found 76% think it is happening, up six percentage points from a poll in March.

The same poll found a record 70% of Americans are very or somewhat worried about global warming. The measure of those who are “very worried” rose 10 percentage points since March.

Matthew Stepp, executive vice president at PennFuture, said the F&M poll results show a disconnect between Pennsylvanians and their lawmakers, who he said act against the climate know-how of their constituents. 

The state legislature has not acted on climate change in years, preferring to favor moves that incentivize the natural gas industry. Republicans who control the General Assembly have been fighting Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s effort to have the state join a regional emissions reduction program for power plants, saying it will jeopardize Pennsylvania’s energy industry.

“Poll after poll, including this one, show a significant and growing majority of Pennsylvanians understanding the need for action on climate change, yet our state legislature spends much of its time giving credence to climate conspiracy theorists, advancing bills to halt any and all actions to cut carbon emissions, and subsidizing fossil fuel projects,” Stepp said. “This growing gap between the state’s political class and its constituents is untenable.”

Disclosure: Franklin & Marshall College Center for Opinion Research is a Climate Solutions partner.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.