Cancun Survey Reveals Knowledge Gap from Critical Sector

According to a Mexico government and Pew Center survey of more than 500 COP16 attendees, action against climate change requires the support of the public, whose members may not even understand the problem.

Nearly all those gathered for the United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Cancun believe that real international action will not happen without strong public support, yet most also believe that the general public doesn't understand the meaning of "climate change," according to a survey by the Government of Mexico and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

More than 500 accredited COP16/CMP6 attendees from around the world – including government delegates, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, experts, journalists, and business leaders – participated in an iPad survey of attitudes on climate change.

The results were presented at the Climate Change Communication Forum co-sponsored by the Mexican government and the Pew Center, which took place at the Hotel Grand Velas of the Rivera Maya, on Dec. 3.

"Quite clearly, effective communication is one of the keys to mobilizing a strong global climate effort," said Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico's Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.

Survey participants included roughly equal numbers from developed and developing countries. Nearly all (94 percent) agreed that "without strong public support, real action on climate change will never be made at the international governmental level." When asked what constituencies need to be more involved, respondents ranked the general public No. 1, ahead of heads of state, business, NGOs and UN organizations.

Yet 58 percent said that the general public does not understand the meaning of "climate change" well or at all. Only 5 percent said the public understands it "very well."

"These findings underscore the tremendous gap between the critical need for action and the public's limited understanding of the issues at hand," said Pew Center President Eileen Claussen.

"All of us – governments, experts, advocates and business leaders – need to do a much better job of explaining to the public both the stakes and the opportunities presented by climate change," stated Claussen.

The survey also revealed mixed views on the role of the mainstream media. Respondents ranked mainstream media like television, newspapers and magazines as the most effective means of communicating to the general public the need for global action. Yet when asked to identify "the most trusted voices on the scale and impact of climate change globally," only 24 percent named the media. A strong majority (87 percent) blamed unskillful media and opinion leaders for a lack of public understanding of climate change science.

Despite recent controversies over climate science, most respondents (66 percent) identified scientists as among the most trusted voices, well ahead of global organizations like the UN (42 percent), NGOs (41 percent), governments (24 percent) and business leaders (13 percent).

When it comes to motivation, 8 in 10 conference participants (83 percent) believe that countries will only undertake ambitious efforts to address climate change once they are actually suffering from the real consequences. Nine in 10 conference participants (90 percent) agree that the global recession has made nations less willing to invest in addressing climate change, with over half (54 percent) saying that they strongly agree.

The study of 503 COP16 participants who completed the survey was conducted via iPad and paper surveys between Nov. 27 -30. Survey respondents included NGO representatives, government delegates, business leaders, bloggers, climate change experts, and think tank representatives who attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico. Only credentialed COP16 participants were included in the survey.

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