Climatic Change

, Volume 151, Issue 2, pp 349–362 | Cite as

Self-assessed understanding of climate change

  • Lawrence C. HamiltonEmail author


Survey researchers often treat self-assessed understanding of climate change as a rough proxy for knowledge, which might affect what people believe about this topic. Self-assessments can be unrealistically high, however, and correlated with politics, so they deserve study in their own right. Turning the usual perspective around to view self-assessed understanding as dependent variable, problematically related to actual knowledge, casts self-assessments in a new light. Analysis of a 2016 US survey that carried a five-item test of very basic, belief-neutral but climate-relevant knowledge (such as knowing about the location of North and South Poles) finds that, at any given level of knowledge, people saying they “understand a great deal” about climate change are more likely to be older, college-educated, and male. Self-assessed understanding exhibits a U-shaped political pattern: highest among liberals and the most conservative, but lowest among moderate conservatives. Among liberal and middle-of-the-road respondents, self-assessed understanding of climate change is positively related to knowledge. Among the most conservative, however, understanding is unrelated or even negatively related to knowledge. For that group in particular, high self-assessed understanding reflects confidence in political views, rather than knowledge about the physical world.



Additional climate questions on the Granite State Poll have been supported by the Carsey School of Public Policy and the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations in this paper are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation or other supporting organizations.

Funding information

The POLES survey and polar questions on the Granite State Poll were supported through the PoLAR Partnership grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE-1239783).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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