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Cloudy Skies: Assessing Public Understanding of Global Warming


  • Sterman, John
  • Booth Sweeney, Linda


Surveys show most Americans believe global warming is real. But many advocate delaying action until there is more evidence that warming is harmful. The stock and flow structure of the climate, however, means "wait and see" policies guarantee further warming. Atmospheric CO 2 concentration is now higher than any time in the last 420,000 years, and growing faster than any time in the past 20,000 years. The high concentration of CO 2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) generates significant radiative forcing that contributes to warming. To reduce radiative forcing and the human contribution to warming, GHG concentrations must fall. To reduce GHG concentrations, emissions must fall below the rate at which GHGs are removed from the atmosphere. Anthropogenic CO 2 emissions are now roughly double the removal rate, and the removal rate is projected to fall as natural carbon sinks saturate. Emissions must therefore fall by more than half even to stabilize CO 2 at present record levels. Such reductions greatly exceed the Kyoto targets, while the Bush administration's Clear Skies Initiative calls for continued emissions growth. Does the public understand these physical facts? We report experiments assessing people's intuitive understanding of climate change. We presented highly educated graduate students with descriptions of greenhouse warming drawn from the IPCC?s nontechnical reports. Subjects were then asked to identify the likely response to various scenarios for CO 2 emissions or concentrations. The tasks require no mathematics, only an understanding of stocks and flows and basic facts about climate change. Overall performance was poor. Subjects often select trajectories that violate conservation of matter. Many believe temperature responds immediately to changes in CO 2 emissions or concentrations. Still more believe that stabilizing emissions near current rates would stabilize the climate, when in fact emissions would continue to exceed removal, increasing GHG concentrations and radiative forcing. Such beliefs support wait and see policies, but violate basic laws of physics. We discuss implications for education and public policy.

Suggested Citation

  • Sterman, John & Booth Sweeney, Linda, 2002. "Cloudy Skies: Assessing Public Understanding of Global Warming," Working papers 4361-02, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
  • Handle: RePEc:mit:sloanp:697

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    3. Christian Erik Kampmann & John D. Sterman, 2014. "Do markets mitigate misperceptions of feedback?," System Dynamics Review, System Dynamics Society, vol. 30(3), pages 123-160, July.
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    8. Varun Dutt & Cleotilde Gonzalez, 2012. "Human control of climate change," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 111(3), pages 497-518, April.
    9. Sophie Guy & Yoshihisa Kashima & Iain Walker & Saffron O’Neill, 2013. "Comparing the atmosphere to a bathtub: effectiveness of analogy for reasoning about accumulation," Climatic Change, Springer, vol. 121(4), pages 579-594, December.
    10. Jeong, Suk Jae & Kim, Kyung Sup & Park, Jin-Won, 2009. "CO2 emissions change from the sales authorization of diesel passenger cars: Korean case study," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 37(7), pages 2630-2638, July.
    11. Ranjan, Ram, 2006. "Technology Adoption against Invasive Species," 2006 Annual meeting, July 23-26, Long Beach, CA 21174, American Agricultural Economics Association (New Name 2008: Agricultural and Applied Economics Association).
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    15. Cronin, Matthew A. & Gonzalez, Cleotilde & Sterman, John D., 2009. "Why don't well-educated adults understand accumulation? A challenge to researchers, educators, and citizens," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 108(1), pages 116-130, January.
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