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Tackling climate change misinformation: A look inside Stanford students’ climate perceptions

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Editor’s note: The following article is authored by The Daily staffer Kate Selig ’23 and her groupmates Alissa Vuillier ’23 and Gabriella Mesa ’23 for their introductory seminar EARTHSYS 41N: The Global Warming Paradox. An abridged version of the survey is available at tinyurl.com/SUCCsurvey19.

When it comes to climate change, many Stanford students don’t seem to know as much as they think they do, according to a survey we conducted for our introductory seminar EARTHSYS 41N: The Global Warming Paradox. We surveyed 156 Stanford students to find out what their media consumption habits were and if they believed common misconceptions about climate change promulgated by news media. 

The results are in line with previous research conducted on undergraduate students’ ability to discern fact from fiction from online sources. In a study conducted by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) in 2017, Stanford undergraduates struggled to differentiate source reliability when handed reliable and misinformed articles on the same topic. While students understand that not everything on the internet can be trusted, they tended to overestimate their ability to determine what misinformation is and what it is not. 

Three sample questions from the survey and the responses we received from a sample of the undergraduate student body are listed below. The survey was conducted via a Google Form that was distributed through mailing lists we were affiliated with and class Facebook groups.

Question: What percentage of plastic waste do plastic straws comprise by mass?

Correct answer: Less than 1%

55.8% of students (86/156) correctly answered less than 1%, while 21.8% of students (34/156) said 2.5%, 16.7% of students (26/156) said 5%, and 5.9% of students (9/156) said greater than 10%.

According to a study published by the University of Georgia in the Science journal, plastic straws comprise only 4% of plastic trash by piece and far less than 1% by mass. And even if we did manage to cut out all single-use plastics, according to the Financial Times, that would only affect 3-4% of current plastic resin demand.

However, plastic straws received a wave of attention on social media in 2018 and 2019 after a video of scientists removing a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose went viral. Since then, many cities, including nearby Palo Alto, have treated plastic straw bans as the gateway ban to address the larger use of plastic waste as a whole. Some corporations have moved to eliminate plastic straws from their stores. 

Question: If all of the Amazon rainforest was destroyed, by how much would the world’s oxygen supply be reduced?

Correct answer: Near 0%

Only 2.4% of students (2/84) correctly answered that the oxygen supply would be reduced by near 0%. The most common answer was a 20% reduction (60.7% of students). 16.7% of students (14/74) thought the oxygen supply would be reduced by 50%.

A common statistic spotted on social media in reaction to the burning of the Amazon forest was that the world’s oxygen supply would be reduced by 20%. In an article for The Atlantic titled “The Amazon Is Not Earth’s Lungs,” journalist Peter Brannen debunks this statistic, explaining the science behind why the Amazon doesn’t supply 20% of the world’s oxygen. 

Through photosynthesis and respiration, the net production of oxygen from forests is near zero. The real contributor to free oxygen is sourced from phytoplankton in the ocean that has accumulated over millions of years. Thus, even if all living cells on Earth were combusted, the oxygen supply in the atmosphere would only drop from 20.9% to 20.4%. While the Amazon burning down would have other severe consequences, like threatening the lives of indigenous people and destroying animals’ habitats, the oxygen supply would not likely be dented. 

Keagan Cross ’23, a member of Fossil Free Stanford, a student group advocating for Stanford to divest from fossil fuel companies, explained that these common misconceptions had the potential to detract from larger climate change mobilization. Cross is also a student in the class.

“The ‘no straw’ movement was quite a culture shift, but maybe that could have been better directed towards the issue of corporate pollution,” Cross said. “Although I’m glad we’re taking steps to eliminate single-use plastics from our daily lives, my hope is that these small consumer choices don’t detract from our responsibility to advocate for larger environmental issues. 

Question: Has Stanford divested from coal?

Correct answer: Yes (but not from fossil fuels)

Only 26.9% of students (42/156) correctly selected yes, while 73.1% of students (114/156) said no.

In 2014, Stanford pledged to divest from $18.7 billion dollars worth of investment into coal companies, making it one of the first major universities to do so. Notably, the University refused in 2016 to divest from all fossil fuels. The Fossil Free movement on campus has gained greater prominence this year as a result of Fossil Free Stanford’s weekly sit-ins urging the University to divest.

In spite of these efforts, in interviews we conducted with students later, we found out that some still weren’t even sure what divestment was. 

Cross explained that this lack of historical knowledge could harm the divestment movement.  

“When people aren’t aware of the past successes of climate activism on Stanford’s campus, they are likely to assume our current efforts aren’t going to provoke any change,” she said. “If students had a better understanding of Fossil Free’s history, then perhaps they’d be more likely to support our cause.”

Climate education

Despite the results of the survey, most surveyed students view themselves as informed about current events and climate change. The survey found that students check the news at least once per day (78.3% of students), and 24.9% of students check the news three or more times per day. Furthermore, 90% of students thought themselves to be a three or higher on a scale of one being the least informed about climate change and five being the most. 

And climate misconceptions could have adverse consequences, even when attempting incremental reform. For example, according to an article on Reason, Starbucks’ new plastic sip lid actually weighs more than the old straw/lid combo.

Cross said that accurate climate education was crucial, adding that “we need to take time to educate ourselves so that we can fully understand the causes we are advocating for.”

Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu, Alissa Vuillier at alissav ‘at’ stanford.edu and Gabriella Mesa at gmesa ‘at’ stanford.edu.