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Hamilton Poll: American High School Students Don't Understand Climate Change Issues

Youth Poll Conducted by Levitt Center and Zogby International

Posted February 7, 2007

It's an inconvenient truth that would make Al Gore shudder: Despite an increasing emphasis at school and in the media on the causes and effects of global climate change, most American high school students don't adequately understand the issue, according to a national telephone survey of 900 students.


Even in a year when Gore's global-warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," is nominated for an Oscar, American high school students believe climate change has no consequences for them in their lifetime, according to the survey. The average high school student fails a quiz on the causes and consequences of climate change.

Conducted by Hamilton College economist Julio Videras and his students in partnership with Zogby International, the national phone survey of 900 randomly selected high school students also indicates that home life influences students' "pro-environment" behavior much more strongly than school.

And whether they rely on science class or the media for information, students have the same level of knowledge about the issue, says Videras. "There's no difference in what students know about climate change regardless of where they get their information," he says. "Schools don't seem to be teaching many specifics about climate change."

In addition to a limited understanding of the science behind climate change, most students don't see themselves at risk: Only 28 percent believe it's very likely that climate change will affect them personally in their lifetimes. Despite these findings, 70 percent think the U.S. should start reducing emissions of pollutants contributing to climate change rather than wait for more evidence about the benefits of reducing greenhouse gases.

Yet only 20 percent say a candidate's position on climate change would strongly influence whether they would vote for the candidate.

"Most of the students polled aren't doing much in the way of pro-environment behavior," says Videras. "Their behavior is related more to how much they talk about it at home and among their friends, rather than whether it's taught in school."

Those who discuss environmental issues informally, with friends and family, are 16 percent more likely to believe the U.S. should mandate the reduction of greenhouse gases.


  • 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.
  • 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 vs. 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 concern for future generations, those who claim to care about people in other countries engage in more pro-environment behaviors then their counterparts.

    Videras and his students collaborated with Zogby to conduct the telephone poll in November 2006. Hamilton College's Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center and Blue Moon Fund funded the poll, which has a margin of error of plus/minus 3.4 percent.


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