SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION AND PERCEPTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

IN KENTUCKY: WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE KNOW
Except where reference is made to the work of others, the
work described in this thesis is my own or was done in
collaboration with my advisory committee.

Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez
Certificate of Approval:

Buddhi Gyawali, Chairman
Assistant Professor
MES Program

John Sedlacek
Associate Professor
MES Coordinator

Charlie Collins
Assistant Professor
MES Program

Mara Merlino
Associate Professor
Division of Behavioral
and Social Sciences

Tierra Freeman
Associate Professor
Division of Behavioral
and Social Sciences

David Allen
Assistant Professor
Murray State University

Michael Bomford
Professor
Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Kirk Pomper
Interim Director
Land Grant Programs

Lorna Shaw-Berbick
Dean of the University

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION AND PERCEPTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
IN KENTUCKY: WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE KNOW

Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez

A Thesis

Submitted to

The Graduate Faculty of Kentucky State University in
Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Science in Environmental Studies

Frankfort, KY

December 19, 2015

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION AND PERCEPTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
IN KENTUCKY: WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE KNOW

Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez

Permission is granted to Kentucky State University to make
copies of this thesis at its discretion, upon request of
individuals or institutions and at their expense. The
author reserves all thesis publication rights.

Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez

Copy sent to:
Name

Date

2015©
All Rights Reserved

iii

Vita

Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez, daughter of Harold and Ann
(Pratico) Hubbard, was born January 26, 1979, in Rutland,
Vermont. She graduated from Rutland High School in 1996. She
attended Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont,
earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spanish in May of 2000.
She then attended the Universidad de las Américas in Puebla,
Mexico, earning a Master of Arts Degree in Mexican
Anthropological Studies in June of 2003. She has worked for
the Land Grant Program at Kentucky State University since
2007. Prior to that, she served as the Spanish Services
Coordinator for the Lexington Public Library System.
Jennifer married Richard Sánchez of Lima, Peru, on April 13,
2003, and they live in Lexington, KY, with their two
children, Diego and Kaira.

iv

Thesis Abstract

SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION AND PERCEPTIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
IN KENTUCKY: WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE KNOW
Jennifer Hubbard-Sánchez

Master of Science, December 19, 2015
(M.A., Universidad de las Américas, 2003)
(B.A., Saint Michael’s College, 2000)
99 Typed Pages
Directed by Buddhi R. Gyawali
This study examines the beliefs in and knowledge of climate
change among adult Kentuckians from the perspective of
climate change as a socially constructed issue. A statewide
survey conducted in July of 2015 assessed what Kentuckians
understand about basic climate science themes including
greenhouse gases (GHGs), factors contributing to GHG
emissions, and the differences between climate and weather.
Respondent beliefs in climate change and perceived causes,
as well as individual levels of concern about the issue
were quantified. Measurements of beliefs and knowledge were
compared to each other, and also to demographic variables
including age, race, gender, political affiliation, and
others. More than 70% of Kentuckians surveyed do believe
v

that climate change is happening, and 69% believe it is
due, at least in part, to human activities. The majority of
respondents do not understand why climate change is
happening, or the basic science behind this complex issue.
From a political perspective, liberal respondents had a
higher level of professed belief in climate change when
compared to more conservative respondents. This study
demonstrates that, while a majority of Kentuckians do
believe that climate change is happening, levels of
professed belief have a significant relationship with
political affiliation. Further, Kentuckians as a whole show
a need for more scientific information and understanding on
this topic. When considering educational efforts in the
Commonwealth of Kentucky, climate change educators and
communicators should not lose sight of the importance of
strong messaging campaigns that engage people through their
beliefs as much as through scientific information and facts
about this issue.

vi

Acknowledgments
The author would like to thank Drs. Buddhi Gyawali, John
Sedlacek, Charlie Collins, Mara Merlino, Tierra Freeman,
Michael Bomford, and David Allen for serving as committee
members for this thesis research. She would also like to
thank Mr. Ken Bates for his assistance with the creation of
maps, and Ms. Susan Templeton for her help with navigating
SPSS.

Special thanks are extended to the United States Department
of Agriculture for funding this research, awarded through
the Enhancing Research-and-Extension Capability by Studying
Land Cover Change, Quality of Life, and Microclimate
Variation in Kentucky grant awarded to Dr. Buddhi Gyawali,
KSU, Award Number: 2014-38821-22398.

Lastly, the author would like to extend her most sincere
gratitude to her family. Special thanks to her parents, who
were always happy to read and edit iteration after
iteration of thesis drafts. A most heartfelt thank you and
much love go to her husband, Richard, and to her two
children, Diego and Kaira, for being supportive of this
work and for making multiple sacrifices over the past few
years so that this project could be successful.
vii

Table of Contents
List of Tables...........................................ix
List of Figures...........................................x
Chapter I- Introduction...................................1
Chapter II- Literature Review and Theoretical Framework...6
Consensus on Climate Change in the United States.....6
Priorities and Beliefs in the United States..........9
The Social Construction of Climate Change...........15
Discourse, Framing, and the Media...................20
Climate Change Beliefs and Kentucky Political
Discourse...........................................29
Research Questions and Hypotheses...................36
Chapter III- Methodology.................................39
Survey Instrument Design and Sample Population
Selection...........................................39
Scores Assigned to Assess Climate Change Beliefs and
Climate Science Literacy............................44
Chapter IV- Results......................................46
Kentucky Climate Change Survey Respondent
Population..........................................46
Kentuckians’ Beliefs about Climate Change...........49
Kentuckians’ Knowledge of Basic Climate Science.....52
Chapter V- Discussion and Conclusion.....................59
References...............................................70
Appendices...............................................83
A. Kentucky Climate Change Survey....................83
B. Recoding of Survey Variables......................89
viii

List of Tables

Table

Page

1. Weighted Survey Variables (Post-survey)............43
2. Demographic Profile of Respondents.................48
3. Respondent Source of Information on Climate
Change.............................................52
4. Responses to Contributing Factors to Climate Change
Question...........................................55

ix

List of Figures

Figure

Page

1. Frequency of Respondents by Kentucky Zip Code......42
2. Breakdown of Race/Ethnicity of Survey
Respondents........................................46
3. Level of Respondent Worry about Climate Change.....50
4. Mean Belief Score by Age...........................51
5. Frequency of Mean Knowledge Score on a 0-17 Scale..53
6. Mean Knowledge Score by Gender.....................54
7. Mean Belief Score by Political Affiliation.........56
8. Mean Knowledge Score and Political Affiliation.....57

x

Chapter I: Introduction

There is broad consensus within the scientific community
that climate change has been greatly accelerated due mostly
to human activities (Oreskes, 2004), and the impacts on
human health and wellbeing will become more detrimental as
time progresses. Flooding, drought, reduced agricultural
yields, greater incidence of insect-borne illnesses,
stronger storms, erosion of coastlines, and many other
issues are projected for the citizens of the United States
throughout this century and beyond (United States Global
Change Research Program, 2014). No matter where one lives
in the U.S., climate change research shows that we will all
be living with a “new normal” in the coming decades.
Leading climate science experts from around the world

1

report that there is still an opportunity for us to act to
mitigate some of the changes that are projected to occur;
however, the time remaining to confront this issue head-on
is running short (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, 2013).

In the United States, scientific discourse about climate
change is in direct competition with political discourse.
While many liberal politicians and their constituencies
lean on the argument of climate science consensus to
support their positions, conservatives have developed
discourse that rebukes what scientists affirm. Messaging
from conservative politicians highlights the complicated
and oftentimes uncertain projections about the implications
of climate change for humans, as well as questioning
current changes in light of historic climatic fluctuations
in Earth’s average surface temperature. Common conservative
discourse attests that climate change is caused by natural
effects of Earth’s system, while others simply claim
climate change is not happening at all.

While there is consensus among the majority of the
scientific community on the causes and impacts of climate
change, the collective American mind has yet to agree on
2

the issue. Values, religion, beliefs, political
affiliation, emotions, worldview, ideologies, and more come
into play when climate change is the topic of conversation
(Hoffman, 2012). The social construction of climate change
and how we create meaning out of it depend on the culture
and context of the societies within which we live, their
history, and how those around us communicate about the
topic. The manner in which climate change is framed by the
media sources we expose ourselves to also contributes to
the meaning of the issue for us as individuals (Benson,
2008).

Media coverage of the 2014 release of two reports, the
Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change and the 2014 National Climate Assessment, as
well as the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed
regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired
power plants, have brought climate change into the
spotlight once again and into the minds of the people of
the United States. Politicians have stated their views on
climate change, with many in support of new regulations and
others who deny climate change is occurring and/or its
causes. In the national political realm, there are many
divergent viewpoints on the issue of climate change, its
3

causes, and the projected impacts on Earth and for human
health and wellbeing.

In Kentucky, five out of six elected Representatives to the
U.S. Congress have either publicly stated that climate
change is not occurring, or that if it is occurring, it is
not our job to prevent it (Peterson, 2013). Between media
coverage that contributes to the arguments of climate
change skeptics, elected officials who deny what empirical
data and scientific consensus show, and a lack of basic
climate science education and understanding, it is
improbable that public consensus on this issue will be
achieved.

Many studies address climate change opinion on a national
scale, but to date no study has assessed the opinion of
Kentucky residents about climate change. Additionally,
little is known about the relationship between climate
change opinions and knowledge about climate science. It is
important to understand these relationships to determine
how best to educate and approach the public on this
complicated and value-laden issue. Therefore, the purpose
of this study is: 1. to survey Kentuckians in order to
quantify their opinions and attitudes on climate change and
4

their sources of information about it; and 2. to compare
beliefs in climate change to knowledge levels and
understanding of basic climate science of those surveyed.
Two hundred and twenty-nine Kentucky adults were surveyed
with questions adapted from those implemented by the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate
Stewards Education Project and the Yale Project for Climate
Change Communication. Demographic information was collected
and used to examine which groups of individuals share
similar beliefs on climate change, and to assess levels of
knowledge in basic climate science literacy among
Kentuckians. The results of this study provide insight to
the current state of climate change opinion and the social
construction of this issue among individuals living in the
Commonwealth.

5

Chapter II: Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Consensus on Climate Change in the United States

Scientifically, there is no debate that the climate is
changing and that it can be attributed to anthropogenic
causes. Ninety-seven percent of papers in climate science
literature that take a stance on climate change find that
it is occurring at an accelerated rate due to human
influence (Cook, Nuccitelli, Green, Richardson, Winkler,
and Skuce, 2013). In fact, major scientific bodies
including the American Meteorological Society, the American
Geophysical Union, the American Association for the
Advancement of Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences,
and other prevalent scientific bodies with extensive

6

research in this area all support these findings (Oreskes,
2004).

The most recent report from the United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a
representation of 195 countries and thousands of
international scientists, confirms that the climate system,
atmosphere, and oceans are warming, snow and ice are
decreasing, sea levels are rising, and greenhouse gas
concentrations are increasing (Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, 2013). The National Climate Assessment,
written by an advisory committee of 60 climate scientists
from across the USA, finds that human activity is the
principal cause of the warming that is occurring (United
States Global Change Research Program, 2014).

Myriad scientific studies have documented atmospheric
buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, a finding that
has been endorsed by the national scientific agencies of
all G8 countries and most climatologists (Hoffman, 2012).
In 2012, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space
Studies, James Hansen, said that extreme weather has become
widespread and frequent enough that it is easily observed,

7

however, he believes there is still a short window of time
for us to confront the issue (Ritz, 2012).

While there is little doubt of climate change and its
causes among members of the scientific community that have
empirically studied climate change, U.S. society has yet to
reach a consensus. According to a November, 2013 report
conducted through the Yale Project on Climate Change
Communication (YPCCC), 63% of Americans believe global
warming is happening.

However, the proportion of those who

believe it is not happening rose 7 percentage points
between April and November of 2013, from 30% to 37%
(Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, Rosenthal,
and Marlon, 2014). In a national 2007 household study, of
approximately 12,000 adults surveyed, 14% believed climate
change is not a very serious problem (Maibach, RoserRenouf, & Weber, 2008). These studies illustrate how the
issue has not yet reached consensus in the collective
American mind and how levels of belief can fluctuate over
time. Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the YPCCC,
attributes this 2013 increase of those who do not believe
climate change is happening to the media coverage of the
2013 IPCC report. He cites a reporting angle that
questioned whether there had been a “pause” in global
8

warming (Pappas, 2014). According to Leiserowitz, there are
certain occurrences contributing to why there have been
observed declines in members of the public who believe in
or worry about climate change over the past decade which
include: the 2008 economic downturn and sharp rise in
unemployment; changes in national leadership and campaign
platforms; decrease in media attention; abnormal weather,
particularly major snowstorms and cold weather; and the
Climategate hacking scandal and subsequent media coverage
(Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Smith, & Dawson,
2013).

Priorities and Beliefs in the United States

For those Americans who do believe climate change is
occurring, there exists a wide variation in the level of
concern that they have about the issue. A Pew Research
Study completed in 2013 found that only four-in-ten
Americans see global climate change as a major threat to
the United States (Drake, 2013). In a separate study done
by the YPCCC on extreme weather and climate change, 56% of
Americans interviewed felt that global warming was
affecting the weather in the United States and 45% felt the

9

weather was being impacted “a lot” (Leiserowitz, et al.,
2014).

In regards to global threats, Americans responding to a
2013 Pew study ranked climate change as number six out of
eight threats, falling behind: 1. North Korea’s nuclear
program, 2. Islamic extremist groups, 3. Iran’s nuclear
program, 4. international financial instability, and 5.
China’s power and influence (Drake, 2013). According to a
2013 Washington Post/ABC poll on guns, politics, and
governing priorities, Americans participating in the survey
rated climate change in last place as a national priority
after: 1. the economy, 2. reducing federal spending, 3.
restructuring the federal tax system, 4. enacting stricter
gun control laws, 5. Medicare and Social Security spending,
6. addressing gun violence, and 7. addressing immigration
issues (Clement, 2013). The Six Americas study also done by
YPCCC found that 16% of Americans are “alarmed”, 27% are
“concerned”, 23% are “cautious”, 5% are “disengaged”, 12%
are “doubtful”, and 15% are “dismissive” of climate change
(Leiserowitz, et al., 2014).

Even in the minds of those Americans who believe climate
change is happening, there remains doubt of why it is
10

occurring. The 2013 Pew research study on climate change
shows that 67% of Americans polled believe climate change
is happening. However, of that 67%, only 44% of individuals
polled believe it is caused by human activity and 18%
believe it is due to natural changes (Pew Research Center,
2014). The YPCCC study on Climate Change in the American
Mind showed similar results, with 47% of Americans polled
believing that climate change is caused mostly by human
activities (Leiserowitz, et al., 2014). With less than half
of Americans polled believing that our actions are major
contributors to climate change, it is improbable that a
majority will advocate for legislation that will confront
the issue directly.

A 2013 public poll conducted by USA Today and Stanford
University shows that 75% of individuals surveyed feel that
the United States should take steps soon to prepare for
global warming; although between 21% and 27% feel that the
government should not get involved at all with boosting
energy efficiency requirements and limiting emissions from
power plants, respectively (Koch, 2013). The politics
involved in taking action on climate change are
increasingly complicated and, among political parties,
rather divisive. A 2013 YPCCC study on public support for
11

climate policy found that 57% of Democrats considered the
issue of climate change a high or very high priority for
Congress and the President, compared with only 19% and 25%
of Republicans and Independents, respectively (Leiserowitz,
Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2014).

While there is a general trend toward increasing consensus
about the evidence of global warming across party lines, in
2012, 85% of Democrats surveyed believed global warming was
happening, as compared to 65% of independents, and only 48%
of Republicans (Clement, 2013). In a 2013 policy brief
based on polls by the Duke University Nicholas Institute
for Environmental Policy Solutions: approximately 80% of
Democrats favored more greenhouse gas regulation and higher
clean energy standards as compared to only 62% of
Independents and 55% of Republicans; and approximately 43%
of Democrats favored a carbon tax as compared to 32% of
Independents and 15% of Republicans (Mayer, Adair, & Pfaff,
2013).

Apart from the divides that exist between political parties
on climate change beliefs and causes, the Republican Party
has further discord among members. In a Pew Research study
on beliefs about climate change within the Republic party,
12

it was found that 25% of Tea Party Republicans agree there
is solid evidence of global warming, while 61% of non-Tea
Party Republicans felt the same way (Dimock, 2013). Some
attribute this difference to the “culture-wars” that are
taking place in the United States and the belief that if
one accepts the scientific consensus of climate change as
fact, he or she is aligning himself or herself with liberal
viewpoints on other issues that have traditionally divided
the country, such as abortion, gun control, health care,
and evolution (Hoffman, 2012). Likewise, the idea that
climate change could bring about major societal change in
the U.S. as a result of efforts to combat the problem, also
means that our industries, lifestyles, and the American way
of life will change drastically (McCright & Dunlap, 2003).

An individual’s beliefs about climate change are influenced
by interactions with others who we trust and who share our
same values (Kahan, 2012). Scientific knowledge about the
issue competes directly with a person’s sense of identity
as it is defined through membership within certain
communities that hold a common set of cultural commitments
(Mooney, 2014). Therefore, the stance an individual takes
in regards to climate change is typically congruent with

13

those individuals and groups that share common interests
(Kahan, 2012).

Individual values and beliefs are significant determinants
in how we face the issue of climate change. The psychology
behind these beliefs and associated action (or non-action)
is also important. Many believe that if everyone had the
most accurate science on the issue, individuals would make
decisions and take action based on this reasoning. Similar
to issues like animal testing in the medical field or
genetically modified organisms, climate change is not a
purely scientific matter, but a socio-scientific issue that
relates to science and has open-ended problems with
multiple solutions (Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes,
2005). Our own ideas about freedom, responsibility, equity
and other issues do not always allow us to make decisions
based on fact (Cho, 2014). Many Conservatives feel that any
possibility of international agreements that intend for
countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are a direct
threat to free market principles, economic growth, national
sovereignty, and control of government regulations
(McCright & Dunlap, 2000). It is crucial to recognize that,
similar to other environmental issues, the climate change

14

debate brings culture, worldviews, and ideology into the
conversation (Hoffman, 2012).

For an individual to be motivated to do his or her part to
alleviate climate-related problems, he or she must regard
helping other people as a central value, as well as the
belief that humans are connected to nature and can have
negative impacts on it (Dietz, Stern, & Guagnano, 1998).
The debate on climate change and the nation’s collective
willingness to confront it or deny it are deep reflections
of who we are as individuals in American society and must
be examined through holistic lenses and not always within
the scope of hard science.

The Social Construction of Climate Change

Climate change is a multifaceted, global issue. The
scientific findings on climate change may be difficult for
some people to comprehend. Likewise, current and projected
impacts of climate change have yet to be experienced by
everyone, and so for many, it is of a distant time and
place. Perceptions of and experiences with climate change
can be indirect and virtual, built through media images and
reporting representing occurrences and impacts taking place
15

in distant locations (Reser, Morrissey, & Ellul, 2011).
This issue is different from more localized environmental
issues because action against climate change at a local
level will not be very impactful unless said action is
replicated at a far greater, more global scale (Rosa &
Dietz, 1998). Likewise, some individuals may feel
conflicted about climate change when they are confronted
with scientific findings that are contrary to their
personal, religious, or political beliefs. How do societies
and individuals formulate opinions and beliefs about
climate change? How do we come to link ourselves with a
challenging issue that many of us have not yet experienced
and decide to take action on a problem that seems far
removed from our realities or belief systems?

We know that there is not one, hegemonic attitude toward
climate change in the U.S., and, more specifically in
Kentucky. There is great need for more research that
enables us to understand how our diverging viewpoints about
the phenomenon are formed. The issue of climate change
emphasizes the challenge in distinguishing scientific
questions left for experts to decide from the associated
value-laden and politicized matters of concern for the
general public to debate (Demerrit, 2006). Climate change
16

has a strong socially constructed dimension (Brand &
Brunnengraber, 2012), and so it is appropriate to examine
this issue through the lens of social constructivism
theory.

Lev Vygotsky, a developmental psychologist credited with
the defining origins of social constructivism, placed great
emphasis on the role of society in how we make meaning out
of what occurs around us. He argued that development comes
after social learning and that "learning is a necessary and
universal aspect of the process of developing culturally
organized, specifically human psychological function,"
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).

Within social constructivism

theory, the manner in which we understand and learn about
what takes place in the world around us is directly tied to
the culture and context within which we are immersed
(Derry, 1999).

Social constructivism sees psychological

knowledge as constructs that occur through historically
prevalent socio-cultural meanings (Augoustinos, Walker, &
Donaghue, 2006), and argues that every idea is socially
constructed and therefore the product of human
interpretation and communication (Roos, 2011). The
meaning(s) of climate change, then, to specific communities
and within societies is a social phenomenon with roots of
17

understanding and possible coping strategies that are
subject to various cultures of interpretation (Brand &
Brunnengraber, 2012).

In a review of social constructivism theory, Kim (2010)
described three specific and important assumptions that
play a role in social constructivism theory: reality,
knowledge, and learning. According to Kim, human activity
constructs reality and the properties of the world;
interactions with others and the environment in which one
lives contribute to how meanings are made; knowledge is
socially and culturally constructed through interactions;
and learning takes place both internally and externally to
an individual via social processes (Kim, 2010).

There are unique challenges to understanding our
perceptions, concerns, and actions toward climate change.
To begin with, physical processes like climate are
ubiquitous, so much so that without being prompted to
consider the issue, it easily fades from our conscious
awareness (Rosa & Dietz, 1998). Likewise, climate science
and projections for the future are based on multiple
scenarios that involve a variety of social decisions and
economic factors. If governments, corporations, and
18

consumers take heed of the projections and modify behaviors
accordingly, it is possible that the projected future
impacts will never come (Yearley, 2009). Based on the above
premises of social constructivism, it is possible that for
those individuals and societies already experiencing the
direct impacts of climate change, the phenomenon would be a
part of their individual and collective realities. It is
also true that those who have not yet felt climate change’s
impacts directly and continue to view it as a distant
problem (either in geographic terms or throughout time) may
be less likely to believe in or show concern toward the
issue.

If our realities are based on social constructions invented
by us, then our direct experiences with impacts of climate
change will determine if climate change fits into our
current realities. Likewise, our knowledge of climate
change, based on our interactions with others and with our
surrounding environment, will depend on how immersed those
around us may be with climate change issues and/or how our
surrounding environment is (or is not) impacted by it.
Lastly, if learning is an active social process that takes
place both internally and externally to an individual, the
types of information about climate change that we expose
19

ourselves to or are exposed to will determine the manner in
which our beliefs and behaviors develop.

Discourse, Framing and the Media

Within social constructivism theory, discourse and framing
are important mechanisms that construct individual
realities. Discursive psychology analyzes written and
spoken discourse and the role it has in the construction of
social reality (Augoustinos, et al., 2006). Language is
viewed as an important feature in the mechanisms by which
we learn, as discourse leads to perceptions and then to
reality (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). According to
Augoustinos, et al. (2006), discursive psychology has four
key characteristics. First, discourse is constitutive, as
people use language to comprehend and make sense of
everyday life as objects and events are discussed.
Secondly, discourse is functional in that it can often be
presented in intentionally persuasive ways that impact the
meanings and realities constructed through conversations.
Third, discourse relies on a defined set of metaphors that
are repeatedly used as resources that construct meaning in
conversations and debates. Lastly, speakers use discourse
to define an identity that changes based on the goals of

20

the interaction (Augoustinos, et al., 2006). In the case of
climate change discourse, scientists, liberal politicians,
and those individuals who believe that anthropogenic
climate change is happening, repeately refer to the
scientific consensus of the issue as a means for
communicating to a supportive public. Conservative
politicians and individuals who are skeptical of mainstream
climate science rely on the notion that the climate has
historically changed throughout Earth’s history and global
temperatures have fluctuated over time as tools in their
discursive practice. Thus, if the discourse of climate
change is produced in a scientific context, it will be
persuasive to those with a scientific background or
individuals who trust scientists. Conversely, if it is
produced in the context of politics, such discourse may be
less persuasive if arguments for industry regulations or
implications of larger government are utilized.

Climate change discourse, the mechanism by which
individuals construct their own perceptions and realities
about the issue, is essential to our future actions, both
individual and collective, that determine if we either
ignore and downplay, or address and ameliorate causes and
impacts. Based on discourse theory, what we hear about
21

climate change and from whom we hear it directly contribute
to our beliefs and individual realities regarding this
topic. Climate change discourse is often generated by
policy-makers, and the media in the U.S. asserts that
climate science is highly uncertain and uses this
disagreement to question the reality of anthropogenic
climate change and to argue against measures to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions (Oreskes, 2004). When discourse is
particularly persuasive and plays on our individual
preconceived notions, as is the case with issues like
climate change that have been deemed both economic and
political, we process the talk through our own social,
historical, and cultural frames of reference. Further,
because uncertainty exists among climate scientists about
projected and potential impacts, as well as many scientific
details that are difficult for lay people to understand,
discourse about climate change can heighten the sense of
confusion felt by many (Hamblyn, 2009).

Framing is especially important when dealing with policyrelevant information, where frames are utilized as
organizing devices that allow the selection and emphasis of
topics to determine what is most important about an issue
(Grundmann & Stehr, 2010).

According to Buttel (2000), how
22

scientific information is presented to and used by and with
the public is crucial to determining the outcomes of
environmental policy and politics.

Media discourse is a major factor in how the many frames of
climate change in the U.S. are created today. In the United
States, how climate change is and has been portrayed in the
media and framed in arguments and national debate is
critical to our social constructs of it.

Recognition of

global climate change is the product of a constructive
process that depends critically upon media coverage (Rosa &
Dietz, 1998). Over the past three decades, the U.S. media
has consistently shown both sides of the climate change
story, and this balancing norm has allowed the claims of
climate change skeptics to remain a viable part of the
national rhetoric (McCright & Dunlap, 2000). Although
climate scientists have reached consensus on climate
change, the depictions of climate change in the media
highlight the debate that surrounds the issue (Carvahlo,
2007). By staying true to the balance required of
journalistic integrity, mass-media sources, both television
and newspapers, have misrepresented climate change
consensus and perpetuated an informational bias (Boykoff &
Boykoff, 2007).
23

When the issue of climate change was brought to light in
the public and political spheres in recent decades, the
U.S. did not immediately engage in a discussion of how to
respond to it. Instead, the national focus fell on whether
or not it was a real phenomenon and, since then, billions
of dollars have been spent attempting to answer that very
question (Demerrit, 2006). The scientific consensus of
climate change has been debated in important newspapers
like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los
Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal (Carvahlo,
2007). In U.S. media, the issue of climate change
skepticism versus consensus, as well as the debates on the
integrity of current climate science, prevails over any
discussion of potential solutions (Brand & Brunnengraber,
2012). Because climate science research is rooted in
modeling and future projections, the authority of
scientific knowledge has been challenged, with an emphasis
on the uncertainties that underpin scientific claims about
climate change (Rosa & Dietz, 1998).

Today, climate change skepticism coming from the U.S.
political conservatives has reached a high degree of
popularity and visibility within our mainstream media
24

(Brand & Brunnengraber, 2012).

Millions of industry

dollars are funneled to political action committees and
conservative think tanks to create advertisements and
publish newspaper editorials that try to debunk climate
science and label it as a hoax (McCright & Dunlap, 2000).
Industry-funded messaging accompanying climate change
skepticism has evolved over time and has included three
main ideas: 1. the climate is not changing; 2. changes that
are occurring are minor and are caused by natural factors;
and 3. changes will be of little consequence and could even
be beneficial (McCright & Dunlap, 2000).

Another technique that has been employed in framing climate
change is to refer to the anthropogenic factors as policy
issues, which removes them from any kind of scientific
status (Rosa & Dietz, 1998). This skeptic framing of
climate change, validated by U.S. mainstream media, has
allowed for a very divergent social reality on climate
change issues for significant groups of people in our
country.

On the politically conservative side of this issue, climate
change discourse has been framed around several key points.
The climate skeptic argument has, in large part, been
25

amplified through financing by large, multinational
companies in the fossil fuel industry that benefit from
heavy consumption of fossil fuels (Demerrit, 2006). Common
messaging to the public includes: the implication that
tackling climate change is a direct threat to the fossil
fuel industry; by addressing the problem, the American way
of life will drastically change; free market principles,
economic growth, and national sovereignty will be
sacrificed (McCright & Dunlap, 2000); there will inevitably
be more government regulations imposed on people; and
lastly, climate change is part of a liberal agenda. On the
liberal side of the argument, which typically advocates for
taking action on climate change, common discourse includes:
the notion that investments in green technology can
ameliorate this problem and will create jobs in the green
sector; government action and stricter laws to restrict CO 2
will be beneficial; by tackling climate change, we are
taking on big business and corporate profits; and that
addressing this issue within our communities will benefit
the socially disadvantaged and promote the rights of the
poor.

Successful framing of climate change that spurs individuals
to take action should resonate with the concerns of average
26

citizens (Roos, 2011), which can prove challenging when the
issue seems oftentimes quite removed from our daily
existence. If mainstream media outlets continue to
highlight the debate about whether or not climate change is
a real phenomenon, individuals are more apt to focus on
having to make a choice about the validity of the issue. By
having to make this choice, people are prevented from
focusing on what science supports and on how on how to
adapt and prepare for what projections say will occur.
Likewise, if individuals only expose themselves to one form
of media, information source, or news outlet, the learning
process about climate change would be strictly limited to
one viewpoint. The consequence of this would be singlesided knowledge and the development of a reality not based
on the physical properties and constraints of our planet.

If the constructive process of climate change depends on
media coverage, it makes sense then, that as media coverage
increases due to natural phenomenon such as Superstorm
Sandy, there will be an increase in public concern in the
days or weeks following the incidents. When we examine how
climate change has been presented to the public by the
media over the past decades, we see a depiction of largescale and catastrophic changes ranging from melting
27

glaciers, to desertification of Africa and the U.S., to
food scarcity across the world, mass migrations,
international conflicts, major loss of biodiversity, and
unprecedented natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina
(Reser, et al., 2011). It has been shown that “quantity of
coverage,” or an increase in coverage on certain
environmental risks, can not only generate concern, but can
also lead to public opinion turning in a negative
direction, called audience negativism (Mazur & Lee, 1993).
In essence, people experience environmental-issues overload
and, rather than take action, it is easiest to withdraw
from the information being provided.

Within the field of sociology of science in recent decades,
climate change has become a major area of research focus
due to the complex ties between knowledge and policy making
(Yearley, 2009). What is known is that there are several
barriers to increasing knowledge and awareness of climate
change among individuals and communities including: 1.
climate change is not always an observable, local issue; 2.
climate science is complex and difficult to teach; 3.
specialists have multiple viewpoints on causes and
provisions of climate change, leading to doubt; 4. the
difficulty of changing our behaviors and living habits; 5.
28

more individuals disconnected from their natural
surroundings and therefore not observing any environmental
changes; 6. projections are in the future and are therefore
among less pressing issues in our lives; and 7. there is a
high number of interdependent environmental problems
involved that can be confusing (Pruneau, et al., 2001).
Climate change is an objective environmental phenomenon
that is socially constructed, which has led to myriad
meanings in our society and a divided approach to policy
and economic solutions (Reser, et al., 2011).

For

individuals to advocate for policies that demand change and
a positive approach to climate change, we must be willing
to change ourselves. Any potential policy responses to
climate change will depend on individual willingness to
accept policy prescriptions (Yearley, 2009).

Climate Change Beliefs and Kentucky Political Discourse

In Kentucky, scientific interests in regards to climate
change conflict with economic interests. Nationally,
political conservatives are less likely to support
environmental regulatory policies than are liberals, and
the same holds true in the Commonwealth. Kentucky is a U.S.

29

leader in coal production and a state that relies on cheap
sources of energy. The Commonwealth finds itself in the
middle of the skepticism argument, as industry revenues,
taxes, employment opportunities, heritage and culture, and
political power are all intrinsically linked to the mining
and burning of fossil fuels.

In Kentucky, the debate about climate change is similar to
conversations taking place across the country and much of
the divide between believers and non-believers is split by
political affiliation. Republican legislators in the
Commonwealth are not divided on the issue, they tend to
share the same discourse and talking points, and the
majority of our highest-ranking elected officials publicly
deny that climate change is an immediate issue that should
be confronted.

In response to a Senate Democrat attempt to bring attention
to climate change in the national Congress, Kentucky
Senator and U.S. Majority Senate Leader Mitch McConnell
refuted the validity of the issue by saying, “For everyone
who thinks it’s warming, I can find someone who thinks it
isn’t,” (Barron-Lopez, 2014). McConnell continued by
adding, “Even if you conceded the point, which I don’t
30

concede, but if you conceded the point, it isn’t going to
be addressed by one country. So the idea is, we tie our own
hands behind our back and others don’t. I think it’s beyond
foolish, and real people are being hurt by this,” (BarronLopez, 2014). Throughout his political career, the
discourse that Senator McConnell has frequently relied upon
refers to efforts to combat climate change as a “war on
coal”, and associates the issue with Kentucky jobs that
have been lost in the coal industry, supposedly as a result
of U.S. EPA and other clean air policies (Davenport, 2015).

In an article on publicly expressed viewpoints of Kentucky
Representatives and their discursive strategies on climate
change, author Erica Peterson details recent quotes of five
Republican congressmen representing Kentucky:

Ed Whitfield (KY’s 1st District), Chair of the
House Energy and Water Subcommittee, called the
EPA’s regulations of coal plants
counterproductive and not a solution, even if one
did believe in “scary global warming scenarios.”

Brett Guthrie (KY’s 2nd District), called for the
President to address the nation’s energy needs in
his agenda on climate change, and criticized the
31

government’s delay in approving the Keystone XL
Pipeline as well as the EPA’s attempts at
regulating the coal industry.

Thomas Massie (KY’s 4th District), challenged
President Obama to show proof that humans were
impacting climate and requested “undeniable
linkage” between changing weather patterns and
human activities.

Hal Rogers (KY’s 5th District), called President
Obama’s climate change plan a “job-killing bomb”
and a “war on middle-class Americans.”

Andy Barr (KY’s 6th District), has said that coal
does contribute to climate change, but that it is
better for the world if we use coal in America.
(Peterson, 2013)

In contrast to Congressional Republicans, Kentucky’s only
Democratic Congressional Representative, John Yarmuth of
KY’s 3rd District, shows concern about the changing climate
and considers it a “moral obligation” to protect the
environment for future generations. On his congressional
website, he states: “Scientific consensus indicates that
global warming will have an increasing impact on our
society and will contribute to droughts, floods, more
32

extreme weather, and the erosion of our coastlines…As we go
forward, I intend to make addressing global climate change
a high priority,” (U.S. House of Representatives, 2014).

Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, whose term ended on
December 7, 2015, was more reserved when it came to public
comment on climate change and oftentimes took a more
neutral stance that was both pro-coal and pro-environment.
In the fall of 2013, at the 37th

Governor’s Conference on

Energy and the Environment, Beshear attested to human
influence on climate change and our responsibility to
address the problem, but stressed that the Commonwealth
needs a

“rational, flexible regulatory approach” due to

our dependence on a coal economy (Peterson, 2013). Prior to
taking office, newly inaugurated Kentucky Governor Matt
Bevin says the “science isn’t settled” and called climate
change “fluff” and “theory” (Bruggers, 2015).

For Kentuckians who identify as politically conservative,
it is fathomable that this kind of discourse functions to
promote a pro-coal economy and jobs in the Commonwealth, in
lieu of the discourse of mainstream climate scientists and
liberal politicians. What Kentuckians hear from the
majority of the leaders of the Commonwealth is that climate
33

change is not real or not a problem that should be
addressed, and that those who aim to tackle the issue are
against coal, against the local economy, and against
Kentucky.

In light of this discourse comes the question

about what average Kentuckians believe about climate
change. To date, there have been few studies implemented
that have examined the opinions and attitudes of
Kentuckians as they relate to climate change, and very
little research has been done on the topic. In a 2009
report by the Kentucky Environmental Education Council
(KEEC), the results of a survey of Kentuckians’
environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, were
published. For the first time on this particular survey,
respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed
with the statement “human activity is causing global
climate change.” The majority of participants (78%)
reported that they believed that human activity is causing
global climate change. Forty-six percent of the
participants reported that they strongly believed that this
was the case (Kentucky Environmental Education Council,
2009).

Aside from the 2009 KEEC survey question about human
activity and climate change, it is difficult to find
34

information or results of any comprehensive study dedicated
to the assessment of climate change in the minds of
Kentuckians. The webpage of the U.S. House of
Representatives Democratic Committee on Energy and Commerce
contains the findings of a 2013 Stanford University study
which is said to have either compiled results from previous
studies, or conducted a state-by-state survey on opinions
about climate change topics (United States House of
Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2013).
The results from the Commonwealth of Kentucky provide
insight into the disconnects between our own beliefs,
knowledge, and actions, as well as how the collective
beliefs of the majority are not always reflected in what
elected officials say they believe. According to the
Stanford report:

76% of Kentuckians believe global warming has
been happening

77% of Kentuckians believe past global warming
has been caused by humans or in equal part by
humans and natural fluctuations

78% of Kentuckians believe global warming will
pose a serious problem for the U.S.

35

52% of Kentuckians consider themselves “highly
knowledgeable” about global warming (United
States House of Representatives Committee on
Energy and Commerce, 2013).

Based on this study, a majority of Kentuckians see global
warming as a real issue that has been at least in part
caused by humans, and they feel this issue should be
addressed. It also shows, however, that an overwhelming
majority of Kentuckians do not feel that climate change is
an extremely important personal issue and that about half
of those surveyed feel highly knowledgeable on the subject.
The 76% of those surveyed in Kentucky who believe climate
change is happening according to the Stanford report is
significantly higher than the 63% national finding from the
YPCCC 2014 report (Leiserowitz, et al., 2014).

Research Questions and Hypotheses

Based on the review of relevant literature about climate
science, and the theories about the social construction of
climate change and political discourse in Kentucky, this
study was designed to address several research themes.
36

First, do the Kentuckians surveyed for this study believe
climate change is occurring or not, and do they believe it
is occurring due to anthropogenic or solely natural
factors? Do participants demonstrate an understanding of
the basic concepts of climate science? What relationship
does knowledge of basic climate science have with
individual beliefs? Because only two studies have briefly
touched upon Kentuckians’ opinions on climate change
(Kentucky Environmental Education Council, 2009; United
States House of Representatives Committee on Energy and
Commerce, 2013), and no studies have been implemented that
measure Kentuckians’ levels of knowledge of climate
science, having a comprehensive, quantitative study that
surveys residents of the Commonwealth is a starting point
for determining where Kentucky opinions stand on this
issue, as well as knowledge levels of climate science.
Hypotheses 1 and 2 state:
H1: An increased understanding of basic climate
science correlates with an increased level of belief
that climate change is happening.
H2: An increased understanding of basic climate
science concepts will correlate with an increased
level of belief that climate change is occurring due
to anthropogenic factors.
37

Secondly, this research aims to develop a greater
understanding of the socially constructed nature of climate
change in Kentucky. It seeks to answer where the
Kentuckians surveyed obtain their information about climate
change, and to examine how political affiliation correlates
with professed beliefs. Recall that in the discussion of
how opinions and beliefs on climate change are formed,
reality, knowledge, and learning are impacted by external,
socially constructed factors (Kim, 2010). Further, language
influences how we learn, and the specific discourse and
frames employed to engage individuals in talk about climate
change leads to perceptions and realities on this issue
(Potter & Wetherell, 1987; Demerrit, 2006). In light of the
manner by which national, state, and local politicians
speak publicly and communicate their agendas on climate
change, Hypothesis 3 states:
H3: Self-identified democrats will have a higher
professed climate change belief score than selfidentified republicans.

38

Chapter III: Methodology

This study assesses Kentuckians’ beliefs about climate
change and their knowledge of basic climate science, and
analyzes relationships between knowledge levels and
professed beliefs. The research takes into account a
variety of demographic factors of respondents throughout
the Commonwealth of Kentucky including: age, gender, race,
level of education, income, political affiliation,
geographic location in Kentucky, among other demographics.

Survey Instrument Design and Sample Population Selection

A survey instrument was designed using questions drawn from
general public opinion questionnaires conducted by the Yale

39

Project on Climate Change Communication’s November, 2013,
Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes Survey
(Leiserowitz, et al., 2014), and the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Stewards Education
Project Participant Pre-Survey (National Atmospheric and
Oceanic Administration, 2009). The questions selected from
these two resources were based on how they assess
respondents’ beliefs in climate change and its causes, as
well as basic knowledge of climate change science. The
survey as it was administered via an internet survey
platform can be found in Appendix A of this document.

Once developed, the pilot survey was administered to a
diverse group of thirty individuals to determine ease of
taking the survey and understanding, as well as the time it
took to complete it. An e-mail link to the online survey
was sent for pilot testing to a wide variety of individuals
including University professors, University and high school
students, public school teachers, government employees,
individuals who are currently unemployed, and others who
work in the automotive and retail industries. After the
pilot field-test was complete, minor changes were made to
the survey instrument. Upon final approval of the survey
instrument by the thesis committee, the survey was packaged
40

and delivered to the GfK online survey platform for
implementation.

Multiple approaches were considered regarding
implementation of this survey to generate a representative
sampling of adult Kentuckians. It was determined that the
most efficient and least-biased approach for implementation
would be to contract an online data collection agency with
a proven history of providing quality survey implementation
nationally and internationally. Similar studies completed
on a nationwide basis used the GfK KnowledgePanel©, an
internet survey platform that uses probability sampling
methods to determine respondent membership. Individuals
belonging to the panel are recruited through a dual-frame
sampling process that combines random digit dial (RDD) and
address-based sampling to reach out to residential
addresses and phone numbers across the U.S. and demographic
variables are weighted to be in accord with data from the
U.S. Census Bureau (GfK, 2013). Upon acceptance onto the
panel, participants are afforded access to free internet
and laptops, allowing this survey method to reach those
individuals who have not had internet access prior to
participation (GfK, 2013).

41

GfK recruits participants using both random digit dialing
sampling methodology, as well as probability-based sampling
of addresses from the United States Postal Service Delivery
Sequence File, as all households in the U.S. can be reached
and contacted through postal mail (GfK, 2013).

Through the GfK platform, this survey was conducted between
July 10, 2015 and July 24, 2015 among non-institutionalized
members of the Kentucky population, ages 18 and above.
Distribution of respondents for this study was spread
across the Commonwealth of Kentucky (Figure 1). To
encourage a higher survey completion rate, GfK sent email
reminders to all participants on days #3, #6, and #11 of
the survey field period. Upon completion of study sample
and
implementation,
GfK adjusted
weights for
survey nonresponse or
under- or overcoverage of
certain sectors
of the

Figure 1: Frequency of Kentucky Respondents by Zip Code

42

population. For this specific study, GfK used March, 2014,
data for the Commonwealth of Kentucky from the Current
Population Survey to rank for the adjustment of the
specific weights (Table 1).
Table 1. Weighted Survey Variables
Variable
Categories
Gender
Male
Female
Age
18-29
30-44
45-59
60+
Race
White/non-White
Metropolitan area Yes/no
Education
Less than high school
High school
Some college
Bachelor
Advanced
Income
under $25K
$25K-$49,999
$50K-$74,999
$75K+
Area
Based on 6
Congressional Districts
Upon completion of the survey, data were entered into an
SPSS file containing the collected survey data, standard
GfK demographic profile data, and variable and value
labels, in preparation for analysis. Data screening and
subsequent limited recoding of variables was performed
after the survey data collection and loading into SPSS were
complete (Appendix B).

43

Scores Assigned to Assess Climate Change Beliefs and
Climate Science Literacy

To determine levels of professed belief and levels of
climate science knowledge, scores had to be calculated and
new variables created. For belief questions, points were
assigned for questions Q1-Q3 and added together, generating
an overall belief score (see Appendix B). To determine a
score for the climate science knowledge portion of the
survey, which included responses to Q6-Q8, a simple
accumulation of points assigned for correct answers was
used. When a respondent answered a question incorrectly, no
points were awarded. If a respondent answered correctly,
one point was awarded. If a respondent answered “probably
true” on a true question or “probably false” on a false
question in responses for Q6 and Q8, one-half of one point
was awarded. For Q7, one half of one point was awarded for
each of the correct greenhouse gases selected. Responses to
Q6_1 were omitted in the calculation of the final knowledge
score, as it was determined that the question could be
misleading. Possible scores on the climate science portion
of the test ranged from 0, for no correct answers, to 17,
which would represent correct answers for all climate
science questions. A new climate score variable was
44

generated which represented a total of all points earned
throughout the climate science knowledge portion of the
survey. Upon completion of recoding and generating
knowledge and belief scores, results analysis was performed
using SPSS (version 22, 2013). The margin of error for this
study was +/- 3 percentage points and the probability level
assigned to test the significance of all analyses was p <
0.05.

45

Chapter IV: Results

Kentucky Climate Change Survey Respondent Population
The Kentucky Climate Change Knowledge and Belief Survey was
distributed using the GfK online survey platform and was
sent to 371 non-institutionalized Kentuckians, ages 18 and

Figure 2: Breakdown of Race/Ethnicity of Survey Respondents

46

older. The instrument was completed by 229 respondents, for
a final completion rate of 62%. Median survey completion
time for all respondents was 7 minutes. Demographic
characteristics of respondents are summarized in Table 2.
The age of participants ranged from 19 to 86 years (M =
51.9, SD = 17.3). Race and ethnicity of survey respondents
(Figure 2) closely mirrored actual demographics of the
Commonwealth of Kentucky, which are: 85.4% White, nonHispanic; 8.2% Black, non-Hispanic; 1.8% Other, nonHispanic; 3.4% Hispanic; and 1.8% two or more races (U.S.
Census Bureau, 2014).

47

Table 2. Profile of Respondents
Respondent Characteristics

Political
Affiliation

Age

Education

Race / Ethnicity

Gender

Always Republican
Usually Republican
Equally Republican or
Democrat
Always Democrat
Usually Democrat
Neither Democrat nor
Republican
Refused

Count Percent
28
12.2
40
17.5
12.2
28
33
44
49

14.4
19.2
21.4

7

3.1

18-24
25-34
35-44
45-54
55-64
65-74
75+

13
36
35
34
49
36
26

5.7
15.7
15.3
14.8
21.4
15.7
11.4

5th or 6th grade
7th or 8th grade
9th grade
10th grade
11th grade
th
12 grade (no diploma)
High school graduate/GED
Some college, no degree
Associate degree
Bachelor’s degree
Master’s degree
Doctorate degree

1
0
1
6
6
1
51
46
25
51
37
4

0.4
0.0
0.4
2.6
2.6
0.4
22.3
20.1
10.9
22.3
16.2
1.7

White, Non-Hispanic
Black, Non-Hispanic
Other, Non-Hispanic
Hispanic
2+ Races, Non-Hispanic

204
13
2
4
6

89.1
5.7
0.9
1.7
2.6

Male
Female

118
111

51.5
48.5

Total Respondents

48

229

Kentuckians’ Beliefs about Climate Change:
Data about the participants’ beliefs in climate change
revealed that 70.3% (N= 161) of the respondents felt that
climate change is occurring. Of the remaining
participants, 12.3% (N=28) do not believe that climate
change is occurring, 16.2% (N=37) are not sure, and 1.3%
(N=3) participants did not respond to the question.
Data about participants’ beliefs of the perceived causes
of climate change revealed that 69% (N = 158), of
respondents who think the climate is changing believe that
humans are at least partially responsible while 12.7% (N =
29) believe the change is mostly due to natural causes.
Approximately 18% (N = 41) of respondents did not know the
answer, and 0.4% (N = 1) refused to answer the question.
Data about respondent beliefs in consensus about climate
change among scientists revealed that exactly 64.6%(N
=148) of respondents believe that most scientists think
climate change is happening, as compared to 29.7%(N = 68)
who believe scientists disagree on the issue or don’t know
whether it is happening, and only 4.8% (N = 11) who
believe that scientists think it is not happening. Less
than one percent (N = 2) of respondents refused to answer
the question.
49

When asked
“does climate
change worry
you?” most
respondents
professed at
least some
worry about
climate change
(Figure 3).
Figure 3: Level of Respondent Worry about Climate Change

An overall

belief score was calculated that took into account the
responses to the four belief questions described above.
The scale of the score was 1 – 3, with a score of 1
falling in line with the beliefs of climate change
skeptics, and 3 coinciding with the beliefs of mainstream
climate change scientists. The average belief score of all
respondents was 2.24 (SD = 0.45).

50

A Pearson
product-moment
correlation
coefficient was
computed to
assess the
relationship
between age and
belief scores,
and it was

Figure 4: Mean Belief Score by Age

found that these
variables were negatively correlated, r(214) = -0.146, p=
0.033. Younger Kentuckians are more likely to have a higher
belief score than older individuals (Figure 4). Of those
surveyed: 18-24 year-olds had a 2.38 mean score; 25-34
year-olds had a 2.3 mean score; 35-44 year-olds had a 2.29
mean score; 45-54 year-olds had a 2.23 mean score; 55-64
year-olds had a 2.29 mean score; 65-74 year-olds had a 2.16
mean score; and the 75+ category had a 2.08 mean score.
A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was
computed to assess the relationship between belief scores
and levels of education, and it was found that a higher
level of education did not lead to higher overall belief
scores for respondents, r(214) = 0.078, p = 0.257.
51

An independent-samples t-test was conducted to compare
belief scores in males and females. Comparison of scores
for males (M = 2.21, SD = 0.502) and females (M = 2.28, SD
= 0.386) revealed no significant differences between the
groups, t(212)= -1.146, p =0.253.

Kentuckians’ Knowledge of Basic Climate Science
In order to

Table 3. Respondent Source of Information
Source

understand where
Kentuckians obtain
information about
climate change,
respondents were
asked to report their
most common sources

Percentage

Television broadcasts

69.9

Internet

51.5

Print Media

25.3

Friends and Family
Scientific Literature

22.3

Talk Radio

19.7

Social Media

18.8

Politicians

7.4

21.0

of

information on
Table 3: Respondent Sources of Information on Climate Change

climate change, and

it

was found that television broadcasts (69.9%) and the
internet (51.9%) were the most common sources (Table 3).

52

To measure
respondent
knowledge of basic
climate science
questions, an
overall knowledge
score was
calculated that
combined points
Figure 5: Frequency of Mean Knowledge Scores on a Scale of 0-17

generated from
responses on Q6-1 – Q8-12 on the survey (Appendix A). The
range of possible knowledge scores for this study was 0 –
17 points and the mean score for all respondents was 7.5
(SD = 3.14), calculated using the compare means function of
SPSS (Figure 5).
Respondents were asked about impacts in the improbable
event that we were to stop burning fossil fuels today. When
asked to respond to the statement, “If we were to stop
burning fossil fuels today, climate change would stop
almost immediately,” a majority of respondents (67.7%)
answered correctly that the statement is false or probably
false. Over one-fifth of respondents (21.4%) claimed to not
know the answer.

53

A large majority of Kentuckians (89.5%) surveyed understand
that weather changes from year to year, but almost twothirds (65.9%) incorrectly believe that climate does as
well. It was found that more than three-quarters of
respondents (77.3%) know that climate means the average
weather conditions in a region, and 57.2% understand that
climate and weather do not mean the same thing.
Kentuckians did not receive high scores when asked about
the nature of specific greenhouse gases and their
efficiency in trapping heat from Earth’s surface, mainly
carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane. When asked, “Is
CO₂ efficient at trapping heat from Earth’s surface?” 73.4%
of respondents said no. When asked similar questions about
water vapor and methane, more than 85% said no for each
gas.
An independentsamples t-test
was conducted to
compare climate
science knowledge
levels between
males and
females.

Figure 6: Mean Knowledge Scores by Gender

54

Comparison of scores for males (M = 8.31, SD = 3.35) and
females (M = 6.65, SD = 2.64) revealed significant
differences between the groups, t(227)= 4.15, p =0.001
(Figure 6).

A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was
computed to assess the relationship between climate change
knowledge and income. There was a positive correlation
between the two variables, r(229) = 0.204, p= 0.002, with
wealthier respondents receiving higher scores on the
knowledge test.

Respondents were asked about how specific factors
contribute to climate change. The answers given reflect
more confusion among participants about what is causing our
climate to change:
Table 4. Responses to

% of correct

% who said

Contributing Factors to

responses

they did

Climate Change Question

among

not know:

participants:
Factor:
Burning Fossil Fuels for Heat

43.7%

6.6%

Deforestation*

43.2%

5.2%

Cars and Trucks*

40.2%

11.4%

and Electricity*

55

The Space Program

39.7%

16.6%

Nuclear Power Plants

20.5%

9.6%

The Sun*

16.6%

9.6%

Acid Rain

16.2%

17%

Aerosol Spray Cans

14%

7.9%

Cows*

10%

14.4%

Toxic Wastes

9.2%

8.7%

Hole in the Ozone Layer

7.9%

15.3%

Volcanic Eruptions

6.6%

12.7%

* Contributor to climate change per climate scientists

This study was designed to analyze three specific
hypothesis that can help to inform how political
affiliation correlates with Kentuckians’ beliefs about
climate change, as well as how knowledge about climate
science may or may not impact beliefs.
H1) Selfidentified
democrats will
have a higher
professed
climate change
belief score
than selfidentified
Figure 7: Mean Belief Score by Political Affiliation

republicans.
56

A univariate ANOVA was conducted to investigate whether the
extent of belief in climate change was related to political
affiliation. Results demonstrated a statistically
significant difference in mean belief scores between those
who identified themselves as Always Republican (M = 1.82,
SD = 0.475) and those who identified as Usually Democrat (M
= 2.48, SD = 0.337). This indicates that participants with
a more conservative political orientation may be aware of
information about the causes of climate change, but may
discount information that they perceive to be associated
with a liberal agenda.
Interestingly, this study found that republican respondents
had a lower level of professed belief in climate change
than democratic respondents, but scored higher on the
climate science knowledge portion of the survey, with mean
knowledge scores
for those who are
“always republican”
at 7.63 and for
those who are
“always democrat”
at 7.24 (see Figure
8). A univariate
ANOVA was conducted

Figure 8: Mean Knowledge Score and Political Affiliation

57

to compare the effect of political affiliation on knowledge
score, and it was found that, although there were no
statistically significant differences in group means,
responses trended in the direction of republican
respondents scoring higher on the climate science portion
of the survey,[F(5, 216) = 2.383 , p = 0.039].
H2) An increased understanding of basic climate science
correlates with an increased level of belief that climate
change is happening.
A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was
computed to assess the relationship between climate change
knowledge and belief scores. There was no relationship
between the two variables, r(214)= 0.031, p = 0.656.

H3) An increased understanding of basic climate science
concepts will correlate with an increased level of belief
that climate change is occurring due to anthropogenic
factors.

A Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient was
computed to assess the relationship between climate change
knowledge and scores for belief in anthropogenic climate
change. There was no relationship between the two
variables, r(187) = -0.129, p = 0.079.
58

Chapter V: Discussion and Conclusion

This study, the first of its kind in the Commonwealth, was
designed to survey Kentuckians about their levels of belief
in climate change, as well as to assess their knowledge of
basic climate science, in order to compare professed
beliefs with knowledge levels. A total of 229 adult
Kentuckians were surveyed and demographic information was
collected to examine which groups of individuals share
similar beliefs on climate change.

Overall, the majority of Kentuckians who responded to this
survey believe that climate change is occurring, with more
than 70% in agreement. This is similar to the 2013 national

59

average of 67% (Pew Research Center, 2014), and lower than
the Stanford study, which found that 76% of Kentuckians
believe climate change is happening (United States House of
Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce, 2013).

A

majority of respondents (69%) who believe the climate is
changing believe that humans are at least partially
responsible, while only 12.7% believe it is mostly due to
natural causes.

More than half of Kentuckians surveyed (56.3%) worry about
climate change, which is lower than the 66% of national
respondents who are “alarmed”, “concerned”, or “cautious”
as asked by the Six Americas study done by the Yale Project
for Communication on Climate Change (Leiserowitz, et al.,
2014). Younger respondents showed higher levels of belief
that are congruent with mainstream climate science. From a
political perspective, democratic respondents were much
more likely to believe climate change is occurring, in
contrast to republican respondents, a finding that is
consistent with other studies on this issue (Clement, 2013;
Leiserowitz, et al., 2014). Gender, race, and level of
education did not have significant impacts on respondent
belief scores.

60

The mean knowledge score for all respondents was 7.5 out of
a possible 17 points. Kentuckians surveyed are unsure of
how the burning of fossil fuels contribute to CO₂ emissions
and climate change, as well as how climate differs from
weather. Knowledge scores on questions related to the heattrapping capabilities of major greenhouse gases were also
quite low, as most respondents were unclear about water
vapor, methane, and CO₂ as being efficient at trapping heat
from Earth’s surface. Further, when asked about specific
factors that contribute to climate change, most respondents
did not answer survey questions correctly.

Knowledge scores between males and females were
significantly different, with males scoring higher on the
knowledge questions than females. Likewise, republican
respondents and those with higher household incomes were
more likely to perform better on the basic climate science
portion of the survey.

Perhaps the most important finding from this study is that
having a greater understanding of the climate system,
greenhouse gases, and human impacts does not lead to a
greater level of belief that climate change is occurring or
that humans are accelerating the rate of change.
61

Hypotheses tested in this study included: H1) Selfidentified democrats will have a higher professed climate
change belief score than self-identified republicans, which
was supported; H2) An increased understanding of basic
climate science correlates with an increased level of
belief that climate change is happening, which was not
supported; and H3) An increased understanding of basic
climate science concepts will correlate with an increased
level of belief that climate change is occurring due to
anthropogenic factors, which was not supported.

By examining Kentuckians’ knowledge and beliefs of climate
change, and how these relate to professed political
affiliation, this study has shown a strong link between the
realities within which we are immersed and how our beliefs
are formed. In regards to H2 and H3, it was found that
climate literacy, while important, was not found to be a
contributing factor to individual levels of belief that are
congruent with what mainstream climate science tells us
about the occurrence of climate change or the major causes.
What Kentuckians know about climate science does not inform
how they feel about it or the level of concern that it
causes.

62

Other factors, in this case political affiliation, have a
more prominent role in determining where the issue of
climate change falls within Kentuckians’ personal
priorities. It is probable, as literature on this topic has
shown (Clement, 2013; Mayer, et al., 2013; Dimock, 2013;
Hoffman, 2012; McCright & Dunlap, 2000), that the social
construction of this issue and how political parties align
themselves, is more important to individuals than the
science. Therefore, for republican respondents who
understand more of the science, it is not in-line with
their political stances to believe that climate change is
occurring. Conversely, for democrats, who received lower
scores, their political leanings may influence the belief
that climate change is happening, whether they understand
the science or not. Overall, Kentuckians did not fare well
on the climate literacy portion of the survey, and it is
apparent that all Kentuckians need more climate science
education in order to understand individual impact on the
climate system.

Another factor that was found to have an impact on belief
in mainstream climate science was age. The younger the
respondent, the higher the belief score, and, conversely,
63

older respondents showed lower levels of belief that
climate change is happening and is anthropogenic in nature,
as other studies have shown (Funk & Rainie, 2015; Pew
Research Center, 2012). It is possible that, for older
adults, they could become more skeptical of issues like
climate change as they age, or that climate change is not
something that they are connected to or will have to face
directly in their lifetime. This is in contrast to the
youth of today who are facing projected impacts that could
potentially change life as they have come to know it.

Overall, more than 70% of Kentuckians surveyed do believe
that climate change is happening, which is higher than what
previous studies have found at the national level (Pew
Research Center, 2014) (Leiserowitz, et al., 2014).
However, most do not understand why climate change happens
or the contributions of humans to this problem.
Kentuckians’ knowledge of the differences between weather
and climate, the role that greenhouse gases play in
trapping heat from Earth’s surface, and how humans
contribute to the emissions of these gases by burning
fossil fuels and other activities, is lacking. Less than
20% of those surveyed believe that climate change is caused
mostly by human activities, contrary to what mainstream
64

climate science studies have shown. Overall, climate
literacy among the Kentucky respondents surveyed is very
low. However, the results of this study have evidenced that
simply having a higher level of understanding of basic
climate science does not imply that we will believe it is
happening, be more concerned, or take the necessary actions
to ameliorate the problem. Further, there was no
statistical significance between a higher level of
education and higher belief that climate change is
happening or that it is anthropogenic, which is
inconsistent with a recent national study (Funk & Rainie,
2015).

What we hear from those we identify with politically and
ideologically seem to inform our opinions more so than
climate literacy. Simply educating the public on
anthropogenic climate change will not suffice. Messaging
campaigns that tap into individual priorities and
ideologies are necessary, alongside basic climate science
literacy, to raise the collective level of concern enough
for individuals to see the need for taking action on
climate change. As it was recently observed with the rise
in belief that climate change is happening among Catholics
with the publishing of the Pope’s encyclical titled Laudato
65

Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Maibach, et al., 2015),
there is a need to educate about climate change in a manner
that targets individual beliefs and values if it is to be
meaningful. Climate change communicators need to study and
ascertain the most effective methods to develop and design
frameworks that speak to the public about climate change in
ways that connect the issue to the things that matter to
them personally.

More than half of the survey respondents claimed to be at
least somewhat worried about climate change, however, less
than 15% considered themselves very worried. It is possible
that, for those who are not concerned, climate change is
still a distant and remote issue that may or may not impact
them in their lifetime, so the need to be alarmed simply
does not take precedence over other, more immediate issues
in their lives. The question becomes how to engage those
who are somewhat worried in climate education initiatives
so that they comprehend the pressing nature of this issue
to the point where taking action is no longer a choice.

This study does not seek to discredit the importance of
teaching basic climate literacy to Kentuckians young and
old. While possibly creating a wide-spread group of those
66

who believe climate change is happening, a climate
education campaign solely based on beliefs and values will
not allow for individuals to understand how our daily
activities contribute to a changing climate. People need to
understand the scientific causes of climate change in order
see the interconnectedness of our daily activities and
greenhouse gas emissions. With such a low overall mean
score on the basic climate science literacy portion of the
survey, and a lack of knowledge of how greenhouse gases
trap heat and their source of emissions, it is hard to
imagine how we will ever see the need to take a stance when
we are so disconnected from the causes and our influence on
a changing climate. If we do not see ourselves responsible
for this daunting issue and the ways we can curb our
greenhouse gas emissions, it is difficult to envision a
Kentucky in which we have the personal, political, and
collective will to address this issue.

There is great need and much potential in the Commonwealth
of Kentucky for a more climate-conscious citizenry. Further
studies should be done to assess the opinions of
Kentuckians under the age of 18 in order to better
understand the perspectives of young people, those who will
soon inherit the future we have designed for them, from
67

across the Commonwealth. Likewise, more research should be
carried out to assess where Kentuckians are obtaining their
information about climate change, examining specific news
broadcasts, internet sites, newspapers, industry messaging,
etc. that are informing the public. Messaging campaigns
that target people’s priorities, for example, climate
change and impacts on public health, potential impacts on
local farms and increased food prices for consumers, etc.,
should be designed. These campaigns should speak to
individual values and not focus directly on the science
behind climate change, as this has the potential to further
alienate those who are adamant that it is not happening.
Likewise, there is an urgent need for Kentuckians to learn
more about climate change science and the connection
between our daily choices, greenhouse gas emissions, and
climate change. The disconnect between our lives and the
changing seasons is growing deeper, and all Kentuckians
should be taught about and understand phenology and how a
changing climate is resulting in altered cycles in the
natural world. The educational system in Kentucky should
make climate change more of a focus in school curriculanot only in science classes, but in language arts and
social studies, where students can learn about policy and
legislation, and design their own initiatives to educate
68

the public and combat this issue, one that will soon be
theirs to confront.

Conclusion

This study aims to inform climate science education, by
taking a snapshot of the current state of climate change
opinion and understanding among Kentuckians. Findings show
that climate change in Kentucky is a socially constructed
matter, deeply rooted in political identities. It has also
been found that knowledge of basic climate science in the
Commonwealth is lacking. In order to best approach
education about climate change, we must understand how and
why people feel certain ways about this issue, their
reasons for believing as they do, and their sources for
information on this topic. Science has shown that the time
to confront climate change has been upon us for years, and
the solution to a successful and meaningful stance will
hopefully come before our realities no longer allow us to
continue the debate.

69

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Harvard University Press.
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Appendix A: Kentucky Climate Change Survey (with response
percentages)
Dear Participant: Kentucky State University is conducting a
survey of individuals from across the Commonwealth about
climate change. The purpose of this research is to gain
more understanding about your familiarity with climate
change and your thoughts and opinions about it. With the
rise in media coverage about this topic and a lack of
studies examining what Kentuckians think about climate
change, we would like to better understand the opinions of
residents in Kentucky and their familiarity with this
topic.
Participation in this survey is completely voluntary,
however, we greatly value your feedback and hope that you
will choose to participate. This survey will take
approximately five minutes to complete.
We recognize that confidentiality is of the utmost
importance and will take every precaution to protect your
privacy. Your responses will be kept strictly confidential,
and only aggregated data will be reported. You are free to
end this survey at any time. There are no significant
physical risks related to participation in this survey.
Participants must be 18 years of age or older. If you are
under age 18, please do not complete this survey. If you
have any questions about this survey, please feel free to
contact the Principal Investigator, Jennifer HubbardSánchez at jennifer.sanchez@kysu.edu or at 502-597-5813.
Thank you for taking the time to serve as a participant in
this study.
Kentucky State University
Office of Sponsored Programs
Human Subject Approval IRB 15-013
By proceeding with this survey, you agree that you
understand the above description of this research and that
you want to take part in this research study.

83

SURVEY
Section A: Climate Change Beliefs In this first series of
questions, we will be asking you for information about your
views and opinions on climate change and where you most
often get your information about this topic. This will
provide us with good background information about
Kentuckians’ beliefs about climate change.
Q1) Which of the following statements most accurately
reflects your views on climate change?
___I am extremely sure that it is happening. (21%)
___I am very sure that it is happening. (24%)
___I am somewhat sure that it is happening. (25.3%)
___I am not at all sure if it is happening. (16.2%)
___I am somewhat sure that it is not happening. (3.5%)
___I am very sure that it is not happening. (4.4%)
___I am extremely sure that it is not happening. (4.4%)
Q1A) If you believe climate change is happening, do you
think it is caused by…
___Mostly by human activities (16.6%)
___Both human activities and natural changes (52.4%)
___Mostly by natural changes in the environment (12.7%)
___Don’t know/Refused (4.8%)

Q2) Which comes closest to your own view?
___Most scientists think climate change is happening.
(64.6%)
___Most scientists think climate change is not happening.
(4.8%)
___Most scientists disagree or don’t know whether climate
change is happening. (29.7%)
__ Don’t know/Refused (0.9%)
84

Q3) How worried are you about climate change?
__ Very Worried (14.8%)
__ Somewhat worried (41.5%)
__ Not very worried (27.5%)
__ Not at all worried (16.2%)
Q4) Where do you get your information about climate change?
(Check all that apply)
__ Friends and family (22.3%)
__TV News Broadcasts (69.9%)
__Talk Radio (19.7%)
__Internet (51.5%)
__Politicians (7.4%)
__Social Media (18.8%)
__Scientific literature (21%)
__Print Media (25.3%)
__Other:_________________
Q5) Which media sources do you regularly use for
information on topics like climate change? (Write the name
of specific media)
Category:

Name of media source(s):

Printed Materials
(Newspapers,
Magazines,
Newsletters,
Journals):

OPEN ENDED RESPONSES

85

Internet
(Blogs, News, Social
media):

OPEN ENDED RESPONSES

Broadcast Media
(TV and Radio):

OPEN ENDED RESPONSES

Section B: Climate Science: Now we would like to ask you
about your familiarity with how the climate system works
and may be impacted by a variety of factors.
Q6) Write an ‘X’ under the answer you think best matches
each statement.
Statement
If we were
to stop
burning
fossil
fuels
today,
climate
change
would stop
almost
immediately
Weather
often
changes
from year
to year
Climate
means the
average
weather
conditions
in a region
Climate
often
changes
from year
to year
Weather
means the

Definitely
True

Probably
True

Probably
False

Definitely
False

Don’t
Know

2.2%

8.3%

37.6%

30.1%

21.8%

53.7%

35.8%

2.6%

0.4%

7.4%

45.9%

31.4%

6.1%

3.1%

13.5%

25.3%

40.6%

13.5%

10.5%

13.5%

86

average
climate
conditions
in a region
Climate and
weather
mean pretty
much the
same thing

21.4%

27.5%

18.8%

17.5%

14.8%

11.8%

17.9%

28.4%

28.8%

13.1%

Q7) Write an ‘X’ under the name of the gas or gases that
you think best match each description.

Description

Efficient
at
trapping
heat from
the
earth’s
surface
(Choose
all that
apply)
Most
abundant
greenhouse
gas

Carbon
dioxide

Water
vapor

Hydrogen

Methane

Oxygen

Ozone

Don’t
Know

26.6%

13.5%

2.6%

14%

3.9%

34.9%

35.8%

34.5%

8.3%

3.5%

9.2%

7%

5.7%

31.9%

Q8) Write an ‘X’ under the answer that best describes how
much you think each factor contributes to climate change.
Factor
Cars and
trucks
Burning fossil
fuels for heat
and
electricity
Deforestation
Volcanic
eruptions

Not at all

A little

Some
33.6%

A
lot
40.2%

Don’t
Know
5.2%

7.4%

13.5%

7.9%

13.1%

28.4%

43.7%

7%

4.4%
6.6%

11.4%
25.3%

29.3%
34.9%

43.2%
19.7%

11.8%
13.6%

87

The hole in
the ozone
layer
Toxic wastes
Aerosol spray
cans
Nuclear power
plants
The sun
Acid rain
The space
program
Cows

7.9%

14%

31.4%

31%

15.7%

9.2%
14%

14.8%
27.5%

27.1%
34.9%

39.7%
15.7%

9.1%
7.9%

20.5%

17%

21.8%

31%

9.6%

16.6%
16.2%
39.7%

18.8%
21%
18.3%

29.7%
27.9%
17.5%

24%
17.9%
7.9%

10.9%
17%
16.6%

34.5%

22.3%

18.3%

10%

14.8%

Q9. What is your political affiliation?
__ Always Republican (12.2%)
__ Usually Republican (17.5%)
__ Equally Republican or Democrat (12.2%)
__ Always Democrat (14.4%)
__ Usually Democrat (19.2%)
__ Neither Democrat nor Republican (21.4%)
__ Refused (3.1%)
For questions about this survey, please contact Jennifer
Hubbard-Sánchez at jennifer.sanchez@kysu.edu or 502-5975813. We thank you for taking the time to complete this
survey and for your invaluable contribution to this
research!

88

Appendix B: Recoded Survey Variables
Original Variable

Recoded
Variable/Points
Assigned
0
0
-1
-2

Missing
“Don’t Know”
Refused to Answer
Q1A on survey (if skipped)
Q1 on survey

1 point
2 points
3 points

1 or 2
3, 4, or 5
6 or 7
Q1A on survey

1 point
2 points
3 points

1
2
3 or 4
Q2

1 point
2 points
3 points

1
2
3
Q3

1
2
3
4

1
2
3
4
Belief Score

point
points
points
points

Q1+Q1A+Q2+Q3/4

Once the score was calculated, it
was inverted so that a lower score
reflected beliefs farther away from
mainstream climate science, and a
higher score reflects beliefs more
in line with science.

89

or
Q1+Q2+Q3/3

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