Kai Ryssdal: Adriene Hill came into my office this morning and said, 'Hey, listen, I need you to quote Donald Rumsfeld when you set up my story on the show this afternoon.' And I said, 'OK, how come?' And she said, 'Because it really tees up where Americans are on the environment right now.'
So, loosely quoted, it goes like this: When it comes to our knowledge of and attitudes about the environment, there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.
Adriene Hill: First, the known knowns. When it comes to the environment, Americans pretty much think they've got it down.
Timonthy Kenyon: In 2011, seven in 10 said they new a lot or a fair amount about environmental issues and problems.
Timothy Kenyon is a researcher with GfK Roper. He headed up a consumer attitudes study (PDF) for SC Johnson, the cleaning products company. He looked at environmental attitudes over the last two decades and found a giant known unknown -- fewer people actually know what they can do to help the environment in big ways.
Not surprising, says Stanford professor Jon Krosnick.
Jon Krosnick: The change is that in recent years, climate change has become the focus.
And climate change is a big problem with no easy solutions. Talk of reducing future pollution now, well...
Krosnick: It's somewhat like saying to a cancer patient, now the bad news you've got cancer and it's a very, very serious problem. The good news is we can prevent you from getting more cancer.
But that known unknown hasn't stopped Americans from making small changes -- more people recycle now; more people buy green products; more people take public transit. Which leads directly to the unknown unknowns: Consumers often overestimate the effects of small actions.
And, says Oklahoma professor Riley Dunlap, there maybe too much focus on those types of changes in the first place.
Riley Dunlap: Many times, the solution to problems is not to ask individuals to change their behaviors, but to ask individuals to support legislation and policies.
Now you know.
I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.