Whether we’re tuning in to the TV news or suffering firsthand the devastation of a heat wave, drought, or wildfire, Americans see with their own eyes that climate change is happening, here and now. As Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman points out:
From desiccating drought to blistering heat, the lower 48 states have taken it on the chin so far this year when it comes to extreme weather events. In fact, as measured by the federal government’s Climate Extremes Index, the January-through-September period has been the most extreme such nine-month period on record.
But even if voters’ attitudes about climate action have sometimes seemed fickle and our memories about weather can be short, the trend is that for families across the country, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore disruptive weather.
Opinion research bears this out.
A new installment by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (pdf) shows that Americans are not only increasingly likely to make connections between extreme weather and global warming, but in growing numbers, they report experiencing extremes firsthand.
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Here’s the national snapshot, with a focus on findings about Western attitudes in particular—which tend to differ, a little or a lot depending on the questions, from other parts of the country.
First the broad strokes. Generally, Americans are seeing more extreme weather, and they are increasingly likely to associate it with global warming:
- A large and growing majority of Americans say “global warming is affecting weather in the United States” (74 percent, up 5 points since the last Yale/George Mason national survey in March 2012).
- Asked about six recent extreme weather events in the United States, including record high summer temperatures, the Midwest drought, and the unusually warm winter and spring of 2011-12, majorities say global warming made each event “worse.” Americans were most likely to connect global warming to the record high temperatures in the summer of 2012 (73 percent).
- Americans increasingly say weather in the United States has been getting worse over the past several years (61 percent, up 9 percentage points since March). Pluralities of Americans in the West (43 percent) say the weather in their area is getting worse (in other regions, this number is higher, including majorities in some US regions).
When we drill down, though, different types of firsthand experiences with extreme weather have had varying effects on public opinion for each region of the country. In some cases, the increases—just since March—in perceptions about extreme weather events are significant—even staggering. Of course this has to do with lived experiences as well as cultural and social factors like local and national discourse by elected officials and the extent and depth of media coverage of climate and weather events:
- Half of Americans (51 percent) say that droughts have become more common in their local area over the past few decades, an increase of 5 points since last spring. This national change was driven primarily by a major shift of opinions in the Midwest (66 percent, up 25 points since March), which was hit hardest by the summer drought. It’s notable that over 60 percent of the contiguous US was affected by moderate to exceptional drought by the end of August 2012.
- A majority of Americans (58 percent) say that heat waves have become more common in their local area over the past few decades, up 5 points since March, with especially large increases in the Northeast and Midwest (+12 and +15, respectively).
- More than twice as many Midwesterners say they personally experienced an extreme heat wave (83 percent, up 48 points since March) or drought (81 percent, up 55 points) in the past year. Northeasterners are more likely to say they personally experienced an extreme heat wave (52 percent, up 10 points since March) or drought in the past year (23 percent, up 6 points). Southerners who say they personally experienced an extreme heat wave increased to 61 percent, from 50 percent in March.
- And an increasing number of Americans in the West say they experienced either an extreme heat wave (49 percent, up 13 points since March) or drought (41 percent, up 10 points).
- One in five Americans (20 percent) says they suffered harm to their health, property, and/or finances from an extreme heat wave in the past year, a 6-point increase since March. In addition, 15 percent say they suffered harm from a drought in the past year, up 4 points.
- Among western voters, 65 percent say that global warming exacerbated record forest fires in the American West.
As you can see, opinions and experiences in the American West differ from other regions of the US. For example, in the West, only four in ten (39 percent, down 11 points since March) remember unusual weather events locally over the past year. The researchers attribute this decline to the fact that most of the population resides in the coastal states, which “enjoyed relatively mild weather this past summer.”
Still, like everybody else, we Westerners are keeping an eye on what goes on elsewhere in the country. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed in the West recall unusual weather events occurring somewhere else in the United States in the past year. But, Western Americans trail their counterparts on this score. Overall, 6 in 10 Americans say they recall weird weather in the US outside their own locality.
When it comes to perceptions of crop damage, Westerners seem more markedly out of sync. In the West the perception that harm to crops is becoming a bigger problem fell from 41 percent in the spring to 28 percent today—again, perhaps due to the relatively mild weather along the Pacific coast in summer 2012, which had also experienced unusually wet and cool weather the previous summer. By contrast, seven in ten Midwesterners (where crop damage from drought was extensive) say extreme weather has caused more harm to crops in their local area over the past few decades (71 percent, up 21 points since the spring).
As for rain and floods, our memories may fail us. The exceptionally hot, dry spring and summer months, where drought, fires, and heatwaves predominated, may lead fewer Americans to say that very heavy rainstorms have become more common in their own local area (down 11 points since March). This trend is particularly pronounced in the Midwest, where only 24 percent say very heavy rainstorms are more common, down from 51 percent last March. Americans in the Western states are also less likely to say very heavy rainstorms are more common (20 percent, down from 39 percent).
Similarly, fewer Americans in the Midwest and the West say that extreme weather has caused more floods in their local area over the past few decades: One in five in the Midwest (21 percent, down 27 points since the spring); one in five in the West (20 percent, down 10 points since the spring).
So, what’s it all mean? Seeing really is “believing.”
But memory works in curious ways; recent experience—perhaps more than cumulative experience and likely more than more scientific data—dictates attitudes. Still, the trends are telling. It seems that as extreme weather affects more people in more places in more severe ways, global warming is increasingly difficult to sweep under the rug.
Undoubtedly, perceptions will snap back whenever the weather happens to seem “normal” for a while. That’s how people are. As Freedman points out, “Public opinion on this issue seems to fluctuate somewhat as extreme weather events come and go.” He reminds us that the odds are that there will still be many more years that will be far less extreme than 2012.
That’s a good thing. But it’s all the more reason for champions of solutions to strike now, while the iron is hot.
Separate research shows that majorities of Americans are hungry for leadership on solutions. And candidates should take note that swing voters tend to favor a bold, forward stance on climate solutions. In fact, several US Senate candidates are using climate as an effective wedge issue. As Joe Romm puts it, the strategy is a two-fer: “It can help mobilize that large number of voters who care deeply about climate change and clean energy. At the same time, it can be part of an overall message that one’s opponent is far out of the mainstream.”
By all indications, the time is now to talk about our responsibility to our kids to break the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on progress and focus the nation’s attention on climate and energy solutions.