GAINESVILLE, Fla. — College students are worried about climate change-related hazards, even if they’re not worried about climate change, suggesting that the threat of climate change still seems theoretical to many, new University of Florida research shows.A UF/IFAS study published online in September by the Journal of Environmental Management measures how worried students are about coastal calamities.
The study is a dissertation by former UF doctoral student Stuart Carlton, now a postdoctoral assistant at Purdue University. Carlton earned his doctorate in interdisciplinary ecology from the UF School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Scientists agree on the existence of climate change, even though it remains a topic of serious debate among politicians and others, Carlton said.
“It’s one of the main controversies of our time,” Carlton said. “Climate change will likely have a dramatic and disproportionate effect on coastal regions – including increased flooding, shoreline erosion and habitat change.”
But, he said, abundant research shows almost half of Americans say they are “not very” or “not at all” worried about climate change.
So Carlton set out to find out what types of climate-related dangers people do worry about.
To that end, Carlton surveyed 762 UF undergraduate students online about their perceptions of potential coastal environmental risks. He received 558 responses.
Respondents were asked to rate their level of concern about 17 coastal-environmental risks. Those risks included rising sea level, property loss and decimated fish populations. The risks were selected based on input from Florida Sea Grant, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Survey respondents ranked highest worries about drinking water loss, beach loss and property damage from hurricanes. They were least concerned with land plant loss, aquatic plant loss, invasive plants and tourism declines.
Carlton explains the apparent contradiction in the research – that college students say they are worried about risks related to climate change while research overall shows that most adults say they are not overly worried about climate change – by making a distinction between danger that feels real versus danger that seems more abstract.
“Hazards are real things,” Carlton said. “Climate change is not something observable on a daily basis.”
Risk perceptions, defined as the subjective judgments people make about the threat posed by a hazard, play an important role in policy-making. Understanding risk perceptions through surveys such as the one he conducted can be a key part of improving risk communication, Carlton writes.
Carlton took the following into account as factors influencing risk perception: age, gender, income, ethnicity, political affiliation, level of social trust, religion, environmental attitudes and proximity to the coast.
Environmental attitudes were the largest determining factor in risk perception. Some people, for instance, believe humans are responsible for environmental stewardship. That type of value played a role in how people perceived coastal risks, the study showed.
Those who identified themselves as Democrats said they were more concerned about how climate change would affect the environment, according to his research. Those who identified themselves as Republicans expressed more concern with how climate change would affect the economy, Carlton said.
Susan Jacobson, a professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at UF and the chairwoman for Carlton’s dissertation committee, says Carlton’s survey can improve how scientists talk about climate change.
“This suggests that people are concerned about physical, biological and economic risks that may be associated with climate change, and that helps us better communicate about risks,” Jacobson said.
Matthew Williams, director of the UF Office of Sustainability and Energy Integration, said he’s not surprised that college students, especially from UF, would recognize damage caused by hurricanes and other dangerous events. Many of them live on the coast or near it, he said.
But drawing a connection to climate change is tough, he said, noting that there’s a growing body of research that shows the same ‘disconnect’ among the public at large.
“It’s not a dichotomy,” Williams said.
Writer: Brad Buck, 352-392-2411, firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Jacobson, 352-846-0652, email@example.com
Matthew Williams, 352-392-7578, firstname.lastname@example.org
UF/IFAS photo by Tyler L. Jones