University speaker discusses climate change

By Simone Shenny

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Yesterday, Jean Johnson, director of education insights from Public Agenda, visited the University of Massachusetts to discuss the organization’s research on the public’s perspective on the environment, energy and science education.

Johnson’s discussion involved an analysis of the first of Public Agenda’s series of surveys titled the Energy Learning Curve. The group, which is a non-partisan and non-profit organization, conducted a national random sample of 1,001 adults over the age of 18 to be asked a series of 90 questions regarding the environment, energy and science education.

The main conclusions drawn from the study were Americans are mostly concerned with the price of energy and the reliance on foreign oil.  Findings also stated Americans were aware of the problem of this reliance, and felt it will not be solved as gas prices decline. The survey highlighted that U.S. citizens were less troubled about the issues involving climate change.

According to Johnson, parents are open-minded when it comes to improving science and mathematics education, but “[parents’] hairs weren’t on fire about the issue.”

Johnson explained that the study demonstrated an existence of a lack of understanding of renewable energy among Americans For example, Johnson cited that four in ten American’s cannot name a single fossil fuel , and six in ten Americans cannot name a single renewable energy source. According to Johnson, scientists should stop trying to make mini scientists out of the public. Instead, they should treat civilians as civilians and educate U.S. citizens about science in a way that is comprehensible for the average American.

Johnson used the analogy of one’s experience going to the oncologist. She described this interaction as one in which the oncologist uses terminology that explains what is happening to one’s body, but does not offer an understandable solution to the problem for the patient. Johnson stated that scientists are guilty of doing the same as the oncologist – explaining the existence of problems in the environment regarding energy and renewable resources, but not explaining what solutions people can work towards accomplishing immediately.

Johnson said that people in positions of leadership in scientific fields focusing on these issues have a role to play in educating the general public on how the public can help make changes and solve these issues.

According to Johnson, there are a few key ways to improve the public’s lack of understanding. Stating that a connection needs to be made between the climate and the energy challenges people are concerned with. Johnson said there needs to be focus on helping the public see the existing choices, gather ideas and assess the new and old ideas in order to create and crystallize solutions.

Johnson also stated that by focusing on making choices seem as though they fix more than solely climate problems, such as issues involving the economy, people are more likely to desire to make necessary changes to help fix both issues.

Additionally, Johnson spoke of the sanctions, rewards and potential tax cuts that many Americans would be interested in for making positive life choices that would help the environment simultaneously.

“People who are concerned are coming together to try to figure out how to move society,” said Johnson, when asked by an audience member what she is trying to do to make people understand about the issues facing the environment and society. “People are vulnerable now as gas prices go up.”

Johnson’s lecture stressed to its audience the importance of understanding the values of Americans in regard to how much a citizen would be willing to change.

“You need to think about the lives of most Americans. Many Americans need their cars,” said Johnson of the unlikelihood of the possibility of getting rid of all fossil fuels.

The lecture was sponsored by the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Institute (STEM).

Simone Shenny can be reached at [email protected].