Preliminary survey data shows students more concerned about climate change

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 8:32pm

An increasing percentage of University of Michigan students are concerned about climate change, according to preliminary data from the 2017-2018 Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program survey. 

The SCIP survey has been sent out to thousands of students, staff and faculty annually since 2012, though no data was collected between 2015 to 2017.

The latest data suggests the percentage of students who are “extremely sure” climate change is occurring rose to about 75 percent this past year, up almost 10 percent from 2015. The percentage of students who think climate change is very important to them personally and those who think it is caused mostly by human activity also saw roughly 10-point increases from the last SCIP survey.

The figures also show University students are more likely to believe in climate change than other students across the country. Yale University conducted a similar annual survey that shows just over 45 percent of Americans were “extremely sure” climate change is real — nearly 30 percent lower than the University of Michigan figures.

Bob Marans, a professor emeritus and researcher at the Institute for Social Research, serves as one of the principal investigators on the SCIP survey. Marans said events including forest fires in California and volcanic eruptions in Hawaii — as well as the increasing attention climate change receives on the political stage — have made climate change a more visible issue. He sees the latest data as an indicator that students are becoming more aware of current events.

“Given what’s going on now with the hurricane that’s coming in, (in) North Carolina and South Carolina, a lot more of these kinds of events are happening and … people are probably reacting to what the United States did in terms of pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord,” Marans said. “I think those are some of the factors that are influencing a greater concern and awareness about it.”

The results of the latest survey didn’t surprise LSA senior Tim Arvan, but they did impress him. Arvan is the co-director of Climate Blue, a climate change action group on campus that sends a delegation every year to a United Nations conference on climate change. Arvan said he’s seen more awareness of climate issues among his classmates recently.

“It’s really encouraging to see this data and to see the leadership that U of M has, especially relative to the national average on climate change awareness,” Arvan said. “I think this is due to both the quality of instruction that's offered at this university, but also due to the activism efforts and personal enthusiasm for these issues, and the passion to get involved both politically and scientifically within the student body itself.”

Earth and Environmental Studies professor Julia Cole has led classes on climate change to undergraduate and graduate students at the University since last year and does not skirt around the issue in class.

“I consistently teach it as if it is scientific fact that we are changing climate and that it's bad and it's about to get worse because that is my belief based on working in this area for a long time,” Cole said. “There really is no way around that.”

Cole said none of the students she’s had at the University yet have pushed back on her approach. Like Arvan and Marans, she thinks the latest SCIP data makes sense based on what she’s seen.

“I don’t think it’s surprising,” she said. “That said though, as a scientist I’d love to think that people make those kinds of statements based on (their) knowledge of science, but actually, the thing I’ve learned about communication is that they don’t, and that they tend to be persuaded by what their peers are talking about.”

Nonetheless, Cole said it doesn’t matter so much how people are concluding climate change is important — she’s just happy to hear they think it’s important at all.

“I think traditionally climate change has been one of those things that is considered to be extremely important in the next 20 years, but not necessarily extremely important in the next year,” she said. “But people vote and make decisions on their short-term worries and so if we keep thinking of it as a long-term future problem, we're never going to solve it.”

Whether students are treating climate change as an immediate problem is not quite clear from the data, though. While he’s enthusiastic about the latest SCIP results, Arvan said part of him worries there isn’t enough being done on campus to spur action.

“I don’t speak for anyone other than myself when I say that,” Arvan said. “But I think a lot of the work  that is done on campus gets people to feel really good about climate change issues and problem solving and that the process can be a bit of greenwashing where people feel that they are contributing enough by using a water bottle or by implementing some very, maybe entry level or simplistic lifestyle changes that really simplify the problem down without really diving deeper and understanding the complexities and further channels to get involved.”

This topic gained some attention at the University’s Board of Regent’s September meeting. Several public commenters, including LSA sophomore Catherine Garton, a co-founder of the U-M Climate Action Movement, detailed concerns that the University was not devoting enough attention to mitigation climate change.

“The University is trying, but it is not trying hard enough,” Garton said. “I feel that we have fallen behind in this regard. Climate change is the biggest problem facing my generation.”

Arvan said he isn’t sure exactly how the University can translate students’ concerns into action. He said that’s “the million-dollar question.” But he does believe the latest SCIP data shows the school is moving in the right direction.

“Understanding that policy is really the focal point of effectuating change and getting people … politically inclined to express themselves on these issues is a is a way to really drive home local change,” he said. “But then also I think that personal lifestyle changes are really important component of getting people to appreciate how their individual impacts can add up to be really significant … it’s an ongoing challenge of all the student organizations involved in this field to kind of figure out how to progress on that front.”