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Hamilton College National Youth Opinion Poll

Climate Change and Environment Issues

Released: February 6, 2007

Executive Summary

American high-school students do not understand climate change issues well. The average high-school student fails a quiz on the causes and consequences of climate change. Students who learn the most about climate change from TV news and shows know as much as students who have learned the most about climate change in school. However, students who learn the most using the Internet do better than the average. Teaching students about climate change outside typical science courses, for example, in a special class dedicated to the natural environment, increases students' knowledge.

In addition to this limited understanding, most high-school students do not see themselves at risk from climate change. Only 28 percent of the students say it is very likely that climate change will affect them personally in the future. Despite these findings, 70 percent of the respondents think the U.S. should start reducing emissions of pollutants contributing to climate change rather than wait until there is more evidence about the benefits of reducing greenhouse gasses. However, only 20 percent of the students say it is very likely that a candidate's position about climate change will strongly influence their vote.

Hamilton Economics Associate Professor Julio Videras and his students collaborated with the polling firm Zogby International to conduct the poll. Nine hundred high-school sophomores, juniors, and seniors from across the U.S. were contacted by phone in November 2006. Hamilton's Levitt Public Affair Center funded the poll. The poll has a margin of error of plus/minus 3.4 percent.

Other interesting findings from the poll include:
  • African-American students are 12 percent more likely to believe that climate change is very likely to affect them personally in the future than students from any other ethnic and racial background. However, African-American students answer correctly fewer questions about climate change than students of other races or ethnicities. This difference holds after controlling for additional characteristics such as gender, political preference, and parents' education, among others.

  • High-school students who do not affiliate to any religious denomination know more about the causes and consequences of climate change than their counterparts and are 13 percent more likely to claim that the U.S. should start reducing greenhouse gasses now than their counterparts do.

  • High-school students who think it is very likely that they will experience the effects of climate change in their lives are 17 percent more likely to state the U.S. should start reducing greenhouse gasses now than their counterparts. However, how students perceive climate change risks is not correlated with their efforts to engage in pro-environment behaviors.

  • Although 66 percent of the high-school students in the sample agree that humans have the right to modify the natural environment, more than two-thirds of the respondents think that the earth's resources are limited and mankind is severely abusing the environment.

  • Making efforts to conserve water is the most frequent pro-environment behavior for the individuals in this sample (65 percent of the responses). The least common activity is trying to reduce the amount of waste the person generates (35 percent of the responses).

  • Discussing environmental issues in school does not influence pro-environment attitudes and behaviors in any significant way. On the other hand, high-school students who discuss issues about the environment at least occasionally with their friends engage in more pro-environment behaviors, know more about the causes and consequences of climate change, and are 16 percent more likely to claim that the U.S. should start reducing greenhouse gasses now than their counterparts do.

  • Almost 83 percent of the respondents strongly agree with the statement that we must consider the impact that our actions will have for the welfare of future generations versus 70 percent who strongly agree with the statement that we must consider how our actions influence the well-being of people living in other countries. Although there is no systematic difference in pro-environment efforts based on how much concern for future generations students state, those who claim to care about people in other countries engage in more pro-environment behaviors then their counterparts.

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