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Public Understanding Of Climate Science Rebounds, 72% of Independents Say There Is ‘Solid Evidence’ Of Global Warming

By Joe Romm  

"Public Understanding Of Climate Science Rebounds, 72% of Independents Say There Is ‘Solid Evidence’ Of Global Warming"

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Brookings has released a new survey that confirms other recent polls: Public understanding of climate science is rebounding, and the recent record-smashing extreme weather events are playing a key role.

As you can see, the biggest jump is from independents, demonstrating once again that global warming has become a major wedge issue. Many other recent polls have made that clear (see “Gallup poll: Public understanding of global warming gains” and “Independents, Other Republicans Split With Tea-Party Extremists on Global Warming”). Now if progressive politicians would only seize on this winning issue.

Perhaps even more remarkable than this rebound in understanding is the record rise in the public’s confidence in their accurate understanding of climate science that the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change [NSAPOCC] found:

Just under two thirds of those who believe global warming is occurring stated that they were very confident of this position. This 63 percent confidence level is 14 percentage points higher than in the fall of 2011 and marks the highest level since the NSAPOCC began in 2008.

Why would confidence be growing, especially when the media and key opinion-makers have all but stopped talking about climate change?

Brookings had previously found that Americans’ Understanding of Climate Change Is Increasing With More Extreme Weather, Warmer Temperatures. Certainly the American public is seeing for themselves the off-the-chart heat waves and other extreme weather that climate scientists have long said would become more common as we pour more heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (see NOAA Chief: U.S. Record of a Dozen Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters in One Year Is “a Harbinger of Things to Come”). That was especially true in March (see “March Came In Like A Lamb, Went Out Like A Globally Warmed Lion On Steroids Who Smashed 15,000 Heat Records“).

The new survey added further evidence that “the growth in the percentage of Americans who see evidence of global warming appears to be related to individual perceptions of weather conditions and events.”:

During the cold and snowy winters of 2010 and 2011 the percentage of respondents who indicated that their experiences with milder winters had a very large effect on their views about global warming was relatively low with 19 percent and 17 percent of respondents selecting this response. Conversely, about twice as many respondents in the latest NSAPOCC reported that the mild winter had a large effect on their view that planetary temperatures are rising.

The effect of the milder winter conditions were also evident in many of the openended comments that respondents provided to the question regarding the primary factor behind their belief that global warming was occurring. For example, a middle-aged male from Connecticut stated that “there was no winter this year,” and a young woman in Maryland noted that “the seasons are abnormal with no snow and cold.” When asked to provide the key factor behind her view that global warming was occurring a middle-aged woman in Wisconsin said that her “garden was already growing in March.”

Even though extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity, the close relationship between weather and beliefs about global warming can potentially make public opinion fickle over the short term — particularly since the continental United States comprises only a tiny fraction of the world and thus its weather is even more erratic than the Earth’s climate as a whole.

But that may be less of a concern if meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters is correct that “The climate has shifted to a new state capable of delivering rare & unprecedented weather events.”

People are starting to connect the dots. Now if only policymakers can start doing the same.

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28 Responses to Public Understanding Of Climate Science Rebounds, 72% of Independents Say There Is ‘Solid Evidence’ Of Global Warming

  1. BillD says:

    In my view, the March heat spell was a real tipping point for public opinion. Now my region in the midwest hasn’t had rain since early May–much more of this and the farmers will have their first crop failure since the 80s. My vegetable garden looks great with twice a week watering. Usually, gardens don’t need watering in May and early June. Now we need for leaders and the media to help people mover beyond their personal annectodal experiences in perceiving climate change to a science-based understanding.

  2. M Tucker says:

    Yeah but many of these “independents” will remain fickle. The next record breaking blizzard and watch the sheep line up in the other direction. And the latest info seems to indicate that we will still have winters that break the record in that direction. Alaska, England and Europe had a much different winter than we enjoyed in the continental US. Also, even is those independents believe the evidence is solid they are still very likely to vote for the climate denier. They will say it is because they think he will do a better job with the economy but it is really because they are sheep.

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      Watching these opinion polls is the same anxiety-inducing deal as watching Arctic ice diminish; there’s no good news in it, just more or less relatively bad.

    • Ken Barrows says:

      Exactly. Even if global temperature records are broken, a cool period in the USA will see those numbers come back down.

      • EDpeak says:

        Indeed; and therefore I respectfully submit that the word “understanding” in the headline is not quite the right word. How quickly does something have to yo-yo back and forth before we use another term other than “understanding” Ok, if millions of Independents had gone to workshpos on the climate science, mabye..no, something that bounced up and down every 6 months or less, that is not “understanding”

  3. David Goldstein says:

    Of course, this is good news, BUT…believing that there is ‘solid evidence’ of global warming is still such a very long way from understanding the urgency to begin substantially transferring away from FFs NOW. Perhaps this growing understanding- 72%, then perhaps 75%, 78%, etc. – will eventually give a president (perhaps Obama- certainly not Romney) the cojones to say “Look folks, this is the highest priority for ourselves and for the world.” We may be at 400 ppm next year (that extra unaccounted for 20% emissions from China is ominous)…we could get to 450 in about 18-20 years at the current rate. That’s REAL SOON.

  4. Peter M says:

    before climate change is perceived as a real threat to the public-a steady and increasing number of horrible events will be needed before the Thugs in control of country will be forces to make policy change.

    Droughts of biblical proportions, floods in NYC, Washington & Boston bring economic activity to a standstill. Heat waves across most of the country lasting weeks on end every summer- and noticeable sea rise flooding the subways NYC- ‘wet feet’ on the Freedom Trail in Boston and the National Mall from storm surges. By then any doubt will be mostly gone. But by this time the climate will have passed any hope of mitigation.

    • David Goldstein says:

      well, that’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? It seems that, recently, many climate activist oriented folks are seeing the writing on the wall that we will not, in fact, substantially ween ourselves away from carbon until we experience scenarios such as you have described. At that point-and it will come in fits and starts, no doubt- what WILL the mitigation possibilities be? Will we be looking at die off/extreme dislocation in the 10/20 % range of humanity or will it be closer to 30/40% or…..? Quite a game of ‘chicken’ we are playing.

      • Peter M says:

        David you are right- the public at least now is starting to see that the climate is ‘different’- and that human influence is likely the cause. Their understanding of climate change however from my experience us very limited- compared to those here.

        When the US economy begins to be effected negatively y extreme climate events- via droughts, storms, crop failures, increasing social chaos/discontent- then something will ‘begin’ to happen. But by then C02 will have passed well beyond 450ppm – and 2 degrees C will be out the window. Our prospects are very distressing.

      • Mark says:

        at some point there may become illegal to burn oil/coal/natural gas.

        I have no trouble imagining it coming to that.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The die-off of the 99% would suit the 1% perfectly.

        • Michelle M says:

          Well, yes, they are stupid enough to kill the geese that lay their golden eggs. But they haven’t figured out that hoarding gold won’t feed them and when people are hungry enough, little lumps of minerals won’t mean as much as actual loaves of bread.

  5. Peter M says:

    The Plans right now in most nations ‘pledges’ to reduce emissions subject us to a 3.5 degrees C warming by the end of the century- and this time line is very optimistic- by 2060 would be more appropriate.

    The inertia in the climate system is also a real problem. C02 may be near 400ppm- but this will not be seen for 20-30 years-

    Massive social dislocation, shattered infrastructure, flooding of cities, a return to dust bowl conditions from Texas to the Canadian border- food prices doubling and tripling, will see a public demanding action. But how long away are we from this kind of scenario?

  6. Dawn says:

    Means nothing if they don’t vote people into office that believe the same thing.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Where will they find such people to vote for? Certainly not in the 100% business controlled Demopublicans or Republicrats.

      • It’s worse than that: even when the public DOES vote into office people who DO believe it (like Romney a few years ago in that video CP shows, and Obama today) the elected officials feel as if they can’t affort to tell the truth/feel as if they can’t take on Big Oil, Big Coal, even when the politician _does_ believe in it. Thus, the problem is bigger, is worse, than just getting politicians into office who believe it’s true. That by itself isn’t enough, the institutions must be changed

        The entire economic-political system must be changed from “externalize all costs to the public and maximize short term profits and call it ‘free market’” to a different, saner, more humane system (which will also be more just) by means of being a democratic economic system. Of course there is a lawsuit against EPA..that’s the institutional mandate(see other story on CP today) of the utility companies…this will not change until the workers and the community members are both of them, the board of directors, and legal charters of corporations made to not “add to” profit maximization but replace it by “governance by all who would be affected” – including the employees (so they are not exploited) but crucially also by communities (to protect the commons)

  7. Dave says:

    Nothing is going to happen unless Republicans stop drinking fossil fuels industry kool-aid and put enough priority on climate change to vote against someone who takes orders from the dirty energy axis of idiots. I do not see that happening any time during this decade. It will take a miracle or a steady stream of climate-fueled catastrophes to produce a consensus for real action. Human intelligence is highly overrated.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    With public opinion responding to experience over months, education is still needed to firm that opinion shift and see the longer pattern.

  9. BillD says:

    The key point is to move away from personal experience to an understanding of science. For example, if TV and newspapers gave more emphasis to the drastic changes happening in the arctic, people might start to pay attention beyond their local weather. They should wonder when a cold day in NY corresponds with temperatures 50oF above normal in Greenland. More reports about how climate change means more fires in the west and droughts over much of the county will also have their effect.

    There’s a good chance of record ice melt in the arctic and record high mean annual global temperatures during the next few years.

  10. rmwarnick says:

    It’s nice to see some people are no longer falling for the denialist propaganda, but really it’s too late to do much before the proverbial tipping point makes the whole debate irrelevant.

  11. Brian R Smith says:

    Summarizing from Joe & the above comments:

    - public perception is improving but policy makers are key
    - things will not get bad enough for the public & policy makers until it’s too late
    - voters are as fickle as short term weather
    - Republicans will not back down anytime soon
    - the media has to do a better job
    - better understanding of the science is key

    All true, all noted many times before in CP comments, and all valuable- along with lots of other observations that together describe a true story but a deeply pessimistic outlook. The ray of hope is always the pendulum of public support as it swings a bit back toward the left.

    As the evidence builds for urgent policy action, the focus on campaigning for public involvement needs to ramp up to a level that will make a major difference in the 2012 elections. What will it take to force the issues in the media, in Congress, in the White House? Bring both the facts and economically tenable solutions to the entire voting public? Overwhelmingly debunk climate denialism for a majority of voters?
    Whatever it takes, if these hard things aren’t done in the next 5 months it you can bet that the opposition(s) will have filled the void very effectively.

    The answer to what it will take is the same answer to the question: what will it take for the distributed leadership of the climate community to come together around the task? All the tools are in hand. Where is the strategy summit hell-bent on designing and delivering a campaign that can light a political fire under Obama and encourage the nation to get real about the future?

    What if we DON’T USE this potential? Groups with major clout now campaign separately on specific issues reaching varied constituencies. The trend is positive. People are being reached. But there is no cohesive national dialog strong enough to engage the MSM or get the oil out of Congress. I believe that if the potential for a major collaboration to bring truth to the American public never materializes – is wasted!- we WILL LOOSE the political fight.

    I just don’t get it. Or maybe I just don’t hear about it (I’ve been looking). Where is the high level strategy? When will the thousands of mirrors focus on the same spot long enough to generate some real power?

    • David Goldstein says:

      as far as I can tell, Bill McKibben and 350.org are far and away the most effective lobbying/activist climate entity in the nation. They seem to be focusing on one campaign at a time-right now it is to get all congress people on record about fossil fuel subsidies. James Hansen and Al Gore are the other ‘big names’ that come to mind. But you’re right- now concerted summit/policy action as of yet.

    • M Tucker says:

      Those who have not made up their minds on the election yet will not be swayed by appeals to solving climate change. They want to know what the President, whoever that might be, will do about the economy and jobs. That is why President Obama talks about green jobs so much. That is as close to the climate change issue as he will get during the campaign. Most who identify as independents really lean toward voting Republican and about 40% of self identified Democrats deny they are liberals…they do not reflect the majority opinion expressed here that we must immediately take meaningful action.

      • Brian R Smith says:

        Absent a stage-grabbing national campaign that forces attention on economic reality in the context of climate change and ecosystem destruction, which I advocate, I think you’re right. Obama will talk about green jobs without much reference to the underlying problems and leave himself open to more lies & distracting criticism on his federal spending record with renewables. No media challenge, no public forum, no get-out-the-climate vote, no urgent message to the nation from scientists, mayors, activists, military leaders, policy voices or communities. No progressive change up in Congress.

        My point is that if this is the way things go it will be because we allowed it by default. The alternative is scaled up, coordinated attempt at media and networking collaboration with specific PR & long term goals.

        I think it’s roughly in two parts: A mainstream TV address to the nation focused on solutions, with many kinds of planned follow-ups… and everything along the lines suggested by Melissa in the comment below.

  12. Maybe the high level strategy is to bring people together at the local and regional level to take direct, visible action (e.g. The Oberlin Project, which David Orr describes as aiming to generate “a mighty commotion at the grassroots”) – link those activated places and the states they’re part of (many of which are ahead of the feds on renewables) – use the credibility and clout of those to demand national action…

  13. Mike says:

    But did some Democrats become Independents over the past year? Would that account for some of the increase among Independents?

  14. Dave says:

    Talking about politics here may be a waste of time. The forthcoming events will likely unite mankind in a struggle for survival. Inaction will not be an option. We will be lucky not to end up in a Mad Max scenario. If we have any chance to avoid that future we’re going to have to cooperate. Fossil fuels will, of course, be banned, and we’re going to have to figure out how to clean up this mess. Some solutions might be simpler than we think, but renewable technology is already here to supplant fossil fuels altogether.

  15. Andrew says:

    Given the shortness of human memory, I suspect that many people will agree that the climate is warming only when present weather is warmer than weather last year or in some other recent year. Comparisons of the present with, say, scores or hundreds of years ago is comparatively difficult. Conversely, if the present is cooler than last year or the one before, then belief in GW diminishes, even though present years are warmer than those 20 years ago.