“Climate change” is a name given to a set of physical phenomena, sometimes referred to as “global warming,” though climate change involves much more than warming. Understanding of climate change relies on the accumulation of observational data and the formation, testing, and refinement of hypotheses, theories, and models. Scientists understand what this all means through collective assessments and peer-review of the evidence. These assessments support the conclusions with a high or very high degree of confidence that:
1. The Earth is warming, the planet’s average surface temperature was 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the first decade of the 21st century than during the first decade of the 20th century, with the most pronounced warming over the past three decades.
2. Most of the warming over the last several decades can be attributed to human activities, the most important of which is the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. Natural climate variability that leads to year-to-year and decade-to-decade fluctuations cannot explain the long-term warming trend.
3. Global warming is closely associated with a broad spectrum of other climate changes, such as increases in the frequency of intense rainfall, decreases in Northern Hemisphere snow cover and Arctic sea ice, warmer and more frequent hot days and nights, rising sea levels, and widespread ocean acidification.
4. Individually and collectively these changes pose risks for a wide range of human and environmental systems, including freshwater resources, the coastal environment, ecosystems, agriculture, fisheries, human health, and national security, among others.
5. Human-induced climate change and its impacts will continue for many decades, and in some cases for many centuries. The ultimate magnitude of climate change and the severity of its impacts depend strongly on the actions that human societies take to respond to these risks.
Climate scientists and educators see climate risks growing, and understand that delayed action will increase the risks further. The public needs to be educated about climate change, because support is needed to implement policies that will help reduce these risks. However, there are many adults in the U.S. who doubt that climate change is happening, is anthropogenic, or presents serious risks. These attitudes result from misconceptions/preconceptions about climate change that are inconsistent with scientific understanding. Therefore, it’s important for scientists to continue to explain what is and is not known about climate change to journalists, policymakers, and the general public; and to continue to correct errors and mischaracterizations of the science of climate change, which continue to be publicized despite repeated corrections. These efforts are necessary to raise the level of public understanding in the current politicized environment.
Improved public understanding of the risks associated with climate change will help in the support of policies, and induce people to act personally to reduce climate risks. Public support for policies to reduce fossil fuel consumption is much stronger than public belief that climate change is anthropogenic; and many people already accept low-carbon energy policy objectives and are willing and able to assimilate good information on how to reduce their emissions regardless of what they understand about climate change.
The above is paraphrased from Public Understanding of Climate Change in the United States, by Elke U. Weber (Columbia University) and Paul C. Stern (National Research Council) published in June of 2011 in American Psychologist, the official academic journal of the American Psychological Association.