Public Attitudes about Extreme Weather and Increased Global Average Temperatures Changing

Apr 22nd, 2012 | By | Category: General

Yale University and George Mason University released their latest survey, Extreme Weather, Climate & Preparedness in the American Mind, concerning attitudes of the American public over long-term world-wide average temperature and extreme weather events, in April, 2012.  A clear majority of the American public finds that unusual weather events have occurred in the preceding year.  By more than 2-to-1, people feel that over the past several years the weather has gotten worse rather than better.  Americans associated the recent extreme weather events with long-term increases in global temperature.  The New York Times reports that other recent surveys have provided similar results.

This survey appears to represent a shift toward greater recognition of the consequences arising from long-term increases in global temperature, compared to earlier recent Yale-George Mason surveys.

We conclude by urging American federal policymakers to recognize this shift in attitudes among the (presumably voting) population of the country.  Our policymakers should enact policies that address long-term global temperature increases and their consequences, as well as develop policies that help the country adapt to changes already under way.

Introduction.  Concern about an increase in the long-term world-wide average temperature ascribed largely to release of greenhouse gases by mankind has been expressed by climate scientists for several decades.  Harmful effects on climate, extremes of weather, and human consequences from this temperature increase have also been predicted over the same time scale.  Corresponding degrees of concern among the peoples of the world has varied with time and by nation or region of the world.

In the United States, several survey results have tracked details of the public’s recognition of, and degree of concern over, long-term average temperature increases and their effects.  This post discusses a survey of Americans (Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Hmielowski, J. D. (2012) ExtremeWeather, Climate & Preparedness in the American Mind. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.)  that was released April 18, 2011 by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.  The survey was conducted the second half of March 2012, interviewing 1,008 people.

Climate and Extreme Weather.  The survey notes that in 2011 the U. S. had 14 serious weather and climate disasters each causing US$1 billion or more in physical damage, more than in any previous year.  Total damage from these events has been evaluated as US$53 billion, not to mention human costs of life and disruption of lives for survivors which are not readily calculable.  Disasters included severe drought and an extended heat wave in Texas and Oklahoma, widespread flooding along the Mississippi River valley, the remnants of Hurricane Irene which brought rain deluges and flooding along the east coast, and numerous damaging tornados.  From January to March 2012 temperatures across the continental portion of the U. S. were 6.0ºF (3.3ºC) higher than normal.

This blog reported on extreme weather events and damage assessments in the U. S. over the preceding ten years in this post , and selectively around the world in this post.

Highlights of the Survey.

More than half of Americans surveyed recognized that, for the preceding year, unusual weather events have occurred (56% for their local area, and 62% elsewhere in the U. S.).

82% personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the preceding year; extreme weather includes extreme high winds, extreme rainstorms, extreme heat waves, drought, extreme cold temperatures, extreme snowstorms, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and wildfires.

More than one-third reported that in the past year they were personally harmed (harm to property, financial status, or physical or mental health) by at least one extreme weather event, and separately, more than one-third reported knowing another person who was harmed.

Americans surveyed stated that over the past several years the weather in the U. S. has become worse rather than better, by 52% to 22%.

About half of those surveyed say that, over the past several decades, the extreme events of heat waves, droughts and very heavy rain storms have become much more common or somewhat more common.  Slightly less than half had the same sense with respect to harm to crops, floods, air quality, forest fires, water quality and transportation.

In the survey group, Americans agree, strongly or somewhat, with the notion  that global warming contributed to the severity of several newsworthy extreme events, including the unusually warm winter of December 2011 and January 2012 (72%), record high summer temperatures in the U.S. in 2011 (70%), the drought in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 (69%), record snowfall in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 (61%), the Mississippi River floods in the spring of 2011 (63%), and Hurricane Irene (59%).


More than half of Americans recognized that unusual or extreme weather events have occurred in the past year, with five-eighths recognizing that such events occurred broadly nation-wide.  Four-fifths of Americans experienced extreme weather themselves, and one-third suffered personal harm as a result.  Significantly, Americans sense that over the past several decades, extreme weather events have become more frequent.  Depending on the event, roughly two-thirds of Americans sense that global warming has contributed to the severity of extreme weather events that occurred in the year preceding the survey.

These results represent a measurable change from previous survey results.  The same consortium published “GlobalWarming’s Six Americas in May 2011” (Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011) Global Warming’s Six Americas in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication) .  In that survey, which was conducted with a different focus than the present one, only 37% of those surveyed were either alarmed or concerned about global warming (on a scale of six categories ranging on the negative side to “dismissive”).  These two categories remained essentially constant back to January 2010, but had been as high as one-half in November 2008.  Only 47% of those surveyed agreed strongly or somewhat that the record snowstorms of the winter of 2010-2011 made them question whether global warming is occurring, and 54% agreed strongly or somewhat that record heat waves in the summer of 2010 in the U. S. strengthened their belief that global warming is occurring.  Although the present survey asked no questions concerning the cause(s) of global warming, the May 2011 survey found that 49% of respondents thought that it is caused mostly or partly by human activities.

The New York Times, reporting on the present survey, noted that other recent survey results also show increased concern by the public about climate change and its effects.  In its report, the New York Times quotes A. Leiserowitz, the lead author of the survey report, as saying “People are starting to connect the dots”.

Weather extremes are one consequence predicted by climate scientists for the effects of an increase in the long-term worldwide average temperature.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a “Summary for Policy Makers of its Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” [Field, C. B., Barros, V., Stocker, T.F., Qin, D., Dokken, D., Ebi, K.L., Mastrandrea, M. D., Mach, K. J., Plattner, G.-K., Allen, S. K., Tignor, M. and P. M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA on November 18, 2011, just ahead of the then-upcoming Conference of the Parties on climate change to convene in Durban, South Africa.  This blog reported on the special report in this post.

In an earlier tutorial post, we presented a basis for understanding that a rise in long-term global average temperature could worsen extreme events.  Very briefly, this is because warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air.  As moisture passes from the vapor to the condensed state (clouds and fog), it releases heat; and in reverse, as clouds evaporate to water vapor, heat is absorbed from the surrounding air.  These localized exchanges of heat lead to temperature gradients that can make winds more intense, and the higher water content of the air affected means that more moisture can fall as rain or snow.   Furthermore, rigorous climate models predict that certain regions of the earth’s surface will become more arid, leading to drought and possible famine, while other regions will experience more precipitation.

Policy for a regime of increasing global average temperatures

The survey reported in this post, and other recent surveys as well, show that the American public is becoming more attuned to the notion that increasing global average temperatures lead to more, and more severe, extreme weather events.  These events lead to damage and harms, physical, mental and societal, that carry with them significant financial losses, losses that ultimately are borne by the taxpayers of the U. S.

Nevertheless, policymakers responsible for setting priorities and for implementing programs in the U. S. have steadfastly ignored public sentiment concerning this issue.  The U. S. has not been able to put in place a statutory policy program to address contemporary problems related to increasing global average temperatures, nor to develop alternative energy sources that avoid the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  As the American public becomes more persuaded that increasing global average temperatures lead to severe weather events and their consequences, such as floods, droughts and shortages of food staples, U. S. policymakers should recognize the significance of these shifts in attitudes among the electorate.  Our elected representatives should act on the imminent dangers posed by increasing global average temperatures in order to mitigate their severity, and to adapt to the resulting changed environment.

© 2012 Henry Auer

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