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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.

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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:

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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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