Do Americans Blame Extreme Weather on a Warming Planet?
In my last blog I explored the scientific basis of attributing climate extremes to climate change. Can we attribute one extreme event to climate change? It appears that while it’s still difficult to say for certain that one specific event is “caused” by climate change, we can say that all events are affected by climate change because the world is warmer and the atmosphere is moister than it used to be. We can also say that many of the billion-dollar disasters that occurred last year, as well as the more than 15,000 warm temperature records that were broken this March in the U.S., would most likely not have occurred without human influences on the climate. Now it’s gratifying to see that most Americans agree.
As if on cue after my blog post two weeks ago, last Wednesday researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities released the results of a poll that surveyed Americans about their personal experiences with extreme weather events and if/how they attach them to global warming. The researchers found that a whopping 82% of Americans said they personally experienced at least one extreme weather event or natural disaster over the past year, and 35% reported at least a moderate amount of personal harm from one or more extreme events in the past year.
Many feel that such events have become more common, including heat waves (53% of respondents), drought (46% - mostly people in the Southwest), and heavy rainstorms (43%). What’s more, many people believe that these events have led to other problems in their area, such as forest fires (again mostly in the Southwest), crop issues, and flooding.
So we have confirmation that Americans are witnessing and experiencing weather extremes personally, but I’d like to know whether they connect these experiences with climate change. The Yale/George Mason survey suggests they do: 69% of Americans believe that global warming is affecting weather in the U.S.
The researchers then focused on individual weather extremes to see how people felt about global warming’s impact on each one. Large percentages thought that specific events were made worse by global warming, including unusual warmth last winter (72%) and summer (70%), drought in Texas and surrounding states (69%), flooding of the Mississippi in 2011 (63%) and Hurricane Irene (59%).
These results are encouraging — public perception is starting to agree with what scientists have been telling us about extreme weather in a warmer world. People are starting to recognize that global warming doesn’t just mean warmer weather, and isn’t something in the distant future. It’s happening now, and not just through warmer temperatures (although this is a big part of it), but also through drought, floods, and increased storm severity.
Will these numbers drop if we have another winter like the “snowmaggedon” of 2010-2011? Maybe, but maybe not—the survey showed that 61% believe that the record snowfall that winter was made worse by global warming. It looks like people are starting to understand that climate change is happening now and producing greater extremes in precipitation as well as temperature —and we can only expect it to continue. Indeed, 52% of Americans think the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse, and 51% think that a natural disaster due to extreme weather will affect them in the next year.
Although these numbers suggest the public is increasingly connecting extreme weather with climate change, the poll doesn’t address whether the public believes humans are at the root of the problem or whether policies to decrease emissions are supported. Jon Krosnick, from the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, has conducted other surveys that address these questions. He and his colleagues found that as of 2011, 83% of Americans believe that global warming has been happening, and 72% believe that global warming is at least in part caused by humans.
As for whether or not the public supports government policies to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Krosnick conducted another survey in 2010 to find the answer. He found that 76% of Americans think the government should limit GHGs from U.S. businesses, and 84% think that the government should give companies tax breaks to produce more electricity from water, wind, and solar power. Even more surprising, 65% of Americans support cap-and-trade. However, when it comes to tax increases on electricity or gasoline, public support is less than 30%.
According to these surveys, a large majority of the American public not only believes in global warming, but also believes that it’s at least in part due to human activity. Furthermore, most of the public supports government policies to reduce GHG emissions, as long as they don’t result in tax increases. They also believe that global warming has been making weather extremes worse in recent years, and that this is likely to continue. It’s gratifying to see that the public is becoming more savvy about climate change; hopefully our legislators will soon become less hesitant to act.