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Politics

Americans Know About Solar. They Don’t Know the Paris Agreement.

A number of terms used by climate activists, politicians, and communicators are unfamiliar to the majority of Americans.

Question mark over climate economy images.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The biggest debates during the annual United Nations climate conference, underway this week in Dubai, always center around language.

The Paris Agreement, the 2015 treaty significant for uniting almost every country in the world in supporting a common strategy to address climate change, was almost scuttled by an argument over whether nations “should” cut emissions or “shall” do it. This year, delegates are at odds over whether the world should “phase down” or “phase out” fossil fuels, and whether to allow for “abated” fossil fuels, a euphemism for the use of carbon capture technologies that prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere.

To explain the significance of these debates, the media often points to the scientific consensus that the world must reach “net zero” to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. But does anyone know what we’re talking about?

Heatmap’s second Climate Poll, conducted in mid-November by Benenson Strategy Group, found that the “Paris Agreement,” “Net Zero,” and a number of other terms used by activists, politicians, and climate communicators, are still unfamiliar to the majority of Americans.

One thousand adults, ages 18 and up, were asked, “In the context of climate change, sustainability and environmental responsibility, how familiar are you with the following terms?”

The results are not exactly surprising. It makes sense that people would be far more familiar with mature technologies like solar, wind, and nuclear, than with terms like “green hydrogen” and “direct air capture,” which are much newer to the conversation and barely exist at scale in the real world yet.

When I ran the findings by Jonathon Schuldt, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies public opinion on health and environmental issues, he agreed that they reflect “the effect of time and exposure” to these terms among the public. “Solar, wind, and nuclear energy have been part of the mainstream discourse for many decades,” he said, “even before terms like global warming and climate change.” To prove it, Schuldt showed me the results of running the terms through the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which identifies their prevalence in books over time:

Google Books Ngram Viewer

But now, the reality on the ground in the U.S. is changing rapidly. The Biden administration is pouring more than $10 billion dollars into deploying green hydrogen plants and direct air capture machines at various sites around the country as a result of two major climate packages passed in 2021 and 2022, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Even as these two pieces of legislation have reshaped the energy and climate discussion in the U.S. in the last two years, public familiarity with green hydrogen and direct air capture appears to have remained static. Our findings line up very closely with a similar poll conducted by Data for Progress in May 2021. While both solutions hold a lot of promise to reduce climate change, they come with many more risks and trade-offs than solar or wind.

In general, we found that more Democrats were familiar with the terms on the list than Republicans. But slightly more Republicans expressed familiarity with “ESG” (40% vs 35%) “nuclear energy,” (71% vs 70%) “wind energy,” (77% vs 75%), “the IPCC 1.5C report” (22% vs 21%) and “Paris agreement” (38% vs 35%).

More men also expressed knowledge of the terms than women in every category.

There was also a significant gap between Americans below and above the age of 50, with younger generations far more likely to know terms like “environmental justice,” “carbon removal,” and “the IPCC 1.5C report.”

We also found a correlation between people who said that they had been personally affected by climate change and knowledge of key climate concepts. About three times as many people who had been affected by climate change knew what “green hydrogen” or a “direct air capture plant” was, compared with those who said they had not been affected by climate change.

“A key question is whether familiarity corresponds to support,” Schuldt told me. “Especially given COP28’s emphasis on the need to shift to renewable energy. On the other hand, that most respondents were unfamiliar with central terms like environmental justice and net zero suggests that the climate movement has more work to do when it comes to engaging the general public in these conversations.”

Well, Heatmap asked about support, too, for at least a few of these. And while solar and wind do have significant support, some of the results are a bit contradictory to the familiarity findings, because far more people said they would support the Paris Agreement and environmental justice than admitted they knew what these phrases meant. (The added context probably helped too.)

We went a lot deeper on some of these questions, especially around support for renewable energy, and will have more to share with you in the coming weeks.

The Heatmap Climate Poll of 1,000 American adults was conducted by Benenson Strategy Group via online panels from Nov. 6 to 13, 2023. The survey included interviews with Americans in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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