For several years climate scientists have said that global warning will be accompanied by more extreme weather events, but that you can’t link specific events to global warming. A year ago, Bill McKibbon did just that in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece. Now, more and more Americans seem to be doing the same thing.
This a conclusion of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications study, “Extreme Weather, Climate and Preparedness in the American Mind.” Based on a survey this past March of a representative sample of 1,008 American adults, it found that fifty-two percent of respondents said they noticed that the weather has been somewhat or much worse over the last few years. Fifty-six and 62 percent of Americans have noticed extreme weather in their local areas and elsewhere in the United States. respectively. These events included extreme winds, rain, and heat; drought; extreme cold and snow; tornado and hurricane; flood; and wildfire. Eighty-two percent of Americans said they had experienced from one to seven or more of these events. Overall, 35 percent of respondents said they had been harmed by extreme weather and 68 percent said they knew someone who had. So, the perception of significantly worse weather is widespread.
A high proportion of respondents nationally linked global warming to extreme weather: Sixty-nine percent of all Americans agreed somewhat or strongly that global warming is affecting US weather. In addition, this view is widely held across regions: Seventy-one percent of respondents in the northeast, Midwest, and west strongly or mostly agreed along with 66 percent of respondents in the south. This is particularly interesting because the south and west are generally more conservative than the northeast, yet there is little difference among the regions.
However, the report did not address two issues: Is global warming anthropogenic (caused by human activity) and how do these results look when compared with prior results?
Taking the second question first, it has to be said that it is difficult to compare results from different surveys. Nonetheless, we do have some data on belief in global warming. For example, the Pew Center asked about belief in climate change for 2006-2011. This survey found a decline from 77 percent believing there was evidence of global warming in 2006-07 to 57 percent in 2009. In 2010-2011, positive responses rose back modestly to 59 and 63 percent respectively. By contrast, Pew reported that the proportion of people who believed that warming was not happening grew from 17 percent in 2006 to 33 percent in 2009 before falling to 28 percent in 2011.
These results suggest – and I want to emphasize suggest – that the more bizarre weather over the last couple of years may be moving people to greater acceptance of the notion that climate change is occurring and may be directly affecting our lives.
Turning to whether global warming is anthropogenic, the proportion of respondents who believed that continues to decline from 47 percent in 2006-08 to 34 percent in 2010 before increasing a little to 38 percent in 2011, still less than the proportion of respondents in 2006.
All this suggests that the key element in public discourse is less likely to be the issue of whether global warming is happening than whether human activity is respnnsible. Moreover, it seems that significant elements of the “climate deniers” have pivoted from denying climate change is happening to insisting that it is a natural phenomenon over which we have no control. It would seem obvious that even if it is natural, we should be making all-out efforts at melioration. But those arguing that it is natural simply use this as one more excuse to say that since there’s nothing we can do about climate change, there’s nothing we should do.
This means we need a two-pronged approach. We need to keep trying to convince people that anthropogenic forces are at work. But for those that continue to argue that climate change is just a natural phenomenon, we need to move them to seeing the need for systematic amelioration.