Poll: Americans’ Understanding of Climate Change Increasing With More Extreme Weather, Warmer Temperatures

The number of people who believe that the planet is warming is at its highest level since the fall of 2009. According to a survey conducted in December 2011 by the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, 62% of Americans say they think global warming is happening. That’s up 7% from last spring.

That matches other recent public opinion research Climate Progress has reported on (see “Gallup poll: Public understanding of global warming gains” and “Independents, Other Republicans Split With Tea-Party Extremists on Global Warming.”

Significantly, Americans are attributing their increased belief in global warming to their (correct) perception that the planet is warming and the weather is getting more extreme. Roughly half of people who believe in global warming said that these were the primary influence.

This is certainly understandable. On the one hand, the media and key opinion-makers have all but stopped talking about the subject, so it would be hard for people to be convinced by those two sources. On the other hand, it’s kind of hard to miss the extreme heat and uber-extreme weather events of the past two years.

With record-shattering droughts, floods and storms in 2011 that scientists attribute to an increasing degree to warming, atmospheric circulation changes, and extra moisture in the atmosphere driven by greenhouse gas emissions, and with 4 out of 5 Americans impacted by extreme weather since 2006, more people say that temperatures and weather changes are influencing their perception of global warming.

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.

[As an aside, it isn’t entirely clear to me that when people say they have “observed” warmer temperatures or weather changes, they only mean weather they personally observed locally — as opposed to what they might have observed on TV or even heard from friends and relatives around the country — JR.]

The Brookings Institution, which released a report on the poll, explains how the phenomenon can swing beliefs on the issue:

A sampling of the open-ended comments provided by survey respondents helps demonstrate the role that weather plays in shaping individual views on global warming. A male senior citizen from Illinois, who feels that there is solid evidence of global warming, said that the primary reason that led him to this conclusion was “winters just aren’t as cold as they were in the past.” Similarly, a middle-aged woman in Florida attributed her position on global warming primarily to her observations that “this time of year is warmer than it is expected to be.” A young man in Texas identified the primary reason for his view that the Earth is warming to “temperatures last summer that were awful,” while another young Texan stated that the “droughts this past summer” were the primary reason that she believed temperatures on earth were increasing. In these cases and many others Americans turn first to the weather they experience as the key reason for their acceptance of global warming.

Of those stating that they don’t think temperatures on earth are increasing, 1 in 3 cited observations of weather as the main cause. Again, the open-ended responses are illustrative of the effect that personal observations of weather have on views about climate change. A young New Jersey woman said “our weather seems just as cold as in the past,” while a middle-aged man in Minnesota noted that “we had more snow last year than ever.” A senior citizen from Ohio said that “winters were just as cold as when I was a kid,” and a young man from Maine simply said “that it’s freezing out” when asked what the primary factor was for his view that global warming was not occurring. As with those who believe global warming is happening, skeptics regularly turn to experience with weather to explain why they have arrived at their position on the matter.

A deeper look at regional differences illustrates this trend. The pollsters asked Americans in different regions of the U.S. about whether drought impacted their belief that the earth is warming. In the south, where states are dealing with an historic, crippling drought that has caused billions of dollars in damages to agriculture, people were far more likely to attribute the lack of rain to global warming:

Here’s another interesting example of the swings in perception, according to the poll: After the cold winter of 2010 and 2011, 40% of those who did not believe global warming said personal observations were their core reason. However, before the snowy winter started, only 30% of non-believers said personal observations were the reason.

That’s human nature. This poll suggests that the number of Americans who understand the climate is changing will likely increase with more extreme weather events as the problem gets worse — not simply because of increasing scientific evidence that tells us we should do something today.

It also tells us what other polls have demonstrated: Talking about global warming isn’t as touchy as politicians (notably our President) make it out to be. According to the data, 55% of Independents believe the earth is warming, while only 30% say it is not. Republicans are split down the middle, with 47% saying they believe in global warming and 42% saying they do not.

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22 Responses to Poll: Americans’ Understanding of Climate Change Increasing With More Extreme Weather, Warmer Temperatures

  1. Mark says:

    Give us a winter with a couple snow-maggedons and all best are off. Fickle americans, and our short attention span!

  2. David F. says:

    Not too surprising… I bet if they ran the poll in the spring, the numbers would be even higher, given that for many, this was like the winter without a winter. I do find it somewhat promising that nearly half of the Republicans polled here said they believe there is solid evidence of global warming, considering that many high-profile GOPers are firmly in the “it’s all a hoax” camp. It’s sad, though, that fewer people with a college degree believe that statement than those without a degree — although, some of the difference may be explained by age. Presumably, most 18-22 year olds polled would not yet have a degree, and so it may also be reflective of an age gap in belief. Would be interesting to see the college group further subdivided by major.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    It’s always good news when poll numbers move in the right direction, of course, but…

    All the bars in the last graph under the “No” category are too large.

    And this movement only further highlights the inherently reactionary nature of Americans regarding this issue. Combine that with the hideously long latencies involved between “enough of the public gets it and feels enough urgency to make it a political force” (and we’re nowhere near that, obviously) and “we’ve elected the right people, put the right policies in place, and they’re having a positive effect”, and it’s hard to see how we avoid some truly awful impacts.

    Worldwide, we’ve already waited far too long to make a leisurely, comfortable transition away from fossil fuels. Our current emissions levels are too high, and the best estimates of where the major emitters are headed (not enough change in the US, plus China and India continuing to build coal plants at breakneck speed) make it clear that we’re going to either change our ways very dramatically and very soon or endure having our actions changed for us by the environment.

  4. Tom King says:

    Climate Defenders need to show Climate Deniers that delaying action while waiting for evermore observational evidence has wasted precious time. Climate Deniers need to explain why they refused to trust reasonable theoretical evidence that came decades earlier.

    If Climate Deniers understand that they are responsible for this delay, they will be less likely to engage in further obfuscation as the situation develops.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    So well said Lou, you’ve summed up what would have taken me pages to write.

    With the Koch guided and funded wing of the GOP eliminating moderates and scaring anyone else in the party from touching climate change (or green energy) – essentially blocking action at the Federal level for the foreseeable future. Its hard to see how that Godfather like control of the GOP is dislodged.

    I wish I could see a way out of this regarding the US political system.

  6. If facts and reason were sufficient to impact public opinion and create the political will for change, it would have happened by now. I found this article by Chris Mooney on the differences between the right wing brain and the left wing brain vitally fascinating. Wonder why even the well educated right consistently denies science? Referenced links to studies showing significant brain structure differences and even genetic differences between liberal and conservative minds are startling, and suggest the narrative used in our messaging is more crucial than our ability to reference demonstrable fact.–_and_reality/?page=entire

    Perhaps even more pertinent is psychologist Kathy McMahon’s piece on ‘panglossian disorder,’ which also suggests we can treat this issue more as a therapeutic one.

    The unsettlingly winterless winter we’ve just had (in my Canadian home town I picked fresh herbs growing outside in a t-shirt in the middle of February, when we would ordinarily expect occasional snow days) can serve as a starting point for bringing this more urgently into the public discussion, but understanding the way climate deniers think (hint, not like most of the people likely to be reading this page) seems to me the best way to gain real traction for urgent change.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    1) The lack of press coverage that CP so consistently and rightly decries is of course no accident. We don’t know the exact cause, but do we agree that the multi-trillion dollar fossil fuel interests have successfully used their vast advertising, PR, lobbying, legal, and “educational” armadas?

    2) Indirectly on topic, always point out that clean energy (especially starting with efficiency and conservation) is less expensive than dirty energy.

    Clean energy, especially efficiency, is less expensive than dirty energy.

  8. BillD says:

    Being an educator, I am rather surprised that “having a college degree” means that you are less likely to understand that the world is warming. At least I hope to convince about 120 students of that fact before the end of the semester.

  9. Leif says:

    The global warming of the world is an average of only ~0.75C. I defy anyone to “see” that. The belief that warm or cold weather is reason for belief or not are both wrong. What people are SEEING is the climatic effects that just ~0.75C can have on the local weather around. By 2050, just 40 years away we will blow by 2C and possibly even 3.5C . Fully three times the disruption! Three times the intensity of the floods, drought, snow fall in the winter, storms of all kinds, the whole shebang. The masses must get this distinction. Climate is not weather, weather is a manifestation of energy imbalance within the local climatic systems that local life have adapted to. Often to a precise degree not imaginable. Think Pine Bark Beetle devastation on less than 0.75C!

  10. M Tucker says:

    Surprised to see that a college degree brings more skepticism. You go liberal, ivory tower elitist science students!

  11. Richard Whiteford says:

    As an official climate change presenter that has done 237 climate change presentations to date, I have noticed interest in understanding climate change has increased strongly. I’m getting about 50 % more of an audience than I did in 2011. I think the extreme weather events are waking people up.

  12. a face in the clouds says:

    Sorry, Joe, I tried to submit this as a news tip but couldn’t make out the anti-spam code words. On the other hand, it may be relevant to this discussion.

    In related news, officials in Bastrop County (Texas) are becoming very concerned over the large number of wildfire victims who have decided against rebuilding. This could represent the second big population shift in these parts the past seven years, including the mass relocation of Katrina victims. Haven’t seen an update on the number of Katrina evacuees who stayed in Houston. The last interim census I saw in 2006 indicated that 115,000 had become permanent residents of Houston. Should Galveston be hit by another serious hurricane in the next couple of years, we could be looking at a third mass shift. The number of farmers reaching retirement age, combined with the drought, is also a situation well worth monitoring.

  13. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Very relevant. Even if they do not accept climate change per say, they are realizing some of the consequences.

  14. Since the US is such a fraction of the world, it really is too bad that it has to be personal to convince people. Makes it very fragile, as it will not always be the US that experiences more heat. A 10 degree rise in Europe this summer and a 9 degree drop in the US will have them believing that it is not happening. We do not need personal experience to convince us of other science that has been settled by scientists.

  15. J4zonian says:

    Yes, Tom. Climate deniers will no doubt accept responsibility, start voting for Green Party candidates and give away all their money to communists and Occupy. And then unicorns will start providing most of our energy, walking in those circles pushing a wooden post around.

    As the older generation of denialists dies off there will be some change; there will also, no doubt be a new generation of delayalists. (which of course is denialism by another meme–how can you delay action if you really believe what scientists are telling us, except by self-deception through splitting and projection?)

    There are multiple lines of defense in the reactionary fortress; we’ve already seen the conservative organs go back and forth several times as outright denialism became more or less sellable. When they can’t sell that to a significant percent (there will always be conspiracists) they will intensify efforts to sell allegedly non-dirty coal, natural gas, hydrogen, nuclear, more study, allegedly-free market solutions, and finally geoengineering. Some will admit everything but block wind and solar with the lies already making the rounds, or at the legislative level by insisting on perfect bills or corporate control and no government funding or…??? There is an endless list of ways.

    Conservativism is the belief in separateness; this is incompatible with belief in the problem and real solutions to climate catastrophe and the larger eco-social-political crisis. It is essentially incompatible with belief in ecology; it’s a non-rational emotional response to childhood and facts won’t touch it for some people. The more conservatives we create with conditions like those that exist and are increasing in the world, the more trouble we will have at every level and stage.

    It’s up to the rest of us to continue harvesting low fruit (advances in development and deployment of renewables, efficiency, reforesting, organic permaculture…) while we do what we can to bring along the undecideds and make changes in those parts of the country where we are not held back by troglodytes. This may be enough to save something, although it looks like we and our children are in for a harder time than humans have ever seen.

  16. J4zonian says:

    How can we learn more about what you present?

  17. Kris says:

    Well… but the severity of winter storms is part of what this article is talking about. Take for instance, too, the fact that there are large tornados touching down in February. These are usually summertime storms.

  18. yogi-one says:

    Thank you for pointing out the first thing that hit me upon reading the poll results. I know the pollsters were looking for other kinds of results, but what this poll actually shows is that Americans do not know the difference between weather and climate, or to be more blunt, Americans are still largely ignorant about matters pertaining to climate.

    Nevertheless, some results are cautious grounds for hope: that half of Republicans acknowledge the reality of GW, and that poor people get it even more than the wealthy (the latter no doubt because the poor are less insulated from the effects of extreme weather, but I’ll take it as a net positive).

  19. john atcheson says:

    Polling on whether people believe global warming is occurring is one thing; questioning the depth of their concern is another.

    When people are asked to rank global warming against other issues of concern, it makes it into the top ten by only a small fraction of respondents.

    And willingness to act is directly related to depth of concern.

    Thus, the greatest catastrophe humanity has ever faced, looms “out there” as a mild concern.

  20. Steven Leibo says:

    It strikes me that pressuring media weather people to get beyond terms like “extreme’ weather etc. can be very useful. And being held up to public ridicule can at times be helpful. I have taken to making very public jokes about timid weather forecasters being afraid to connect the dots. The hope is that we might at least embarrass a few of them into rethinking their choice of words.

  21. Lazarus says:

    Seems odd that those without a college degree are more likely to accept than those with one.

  22. Douglas says:

    The brain washing is less complete. There are enormous numbers of students memorizing material in business and commerce courses, and very few learning critical thinking in philosophy.