More than half of Americans believe that weather in the United States has gotten worse over the past several years, and even more say they believe that global warming is affecting U.S. weather, a new report finds.
The data come from the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, which tracks Americans' opinions about climate change over time. About 63 percent of Americans said they believed that global warming is occurring, essentially unchanged from 64 percent in the last survey in May 2011. Half of Americans said that humans contribute to climate change, a slight increase of 3 percentage points since May.
For the first time this November, the researchers asked a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans whether they believe that weather has been changing over the last several years. About 40 percent said no, while 56 percent said that weather seems to be getting worse. (Three percent said weather is improving.) In a separate question, 65 percent of Americans said climate change is affecting global warming.
When asked about specific weather events, 67 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat strongly agreed that record-high temperatures in the U.S. in 2011 could be linked to climate change. Sixty-five percent said the same of the 2011 drought in Texas and Oklahoma. Sixty percent linked climate change to both the Mississippi River floods of spring 2011 and the record snowfalls in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011. Likewise, 57 percent said that Hurricane Irene, which hit the East Coast in late August, was worsened by climate change.
"Americans are beginning to think about this issue in what I would argue is a new frame," Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale climate change communication group, told LiveScience. "Global warming has historically been seen as a distant problem, distant in time, meaning the impacts wouldn't be felt for a generation or more, and distant in space, meaning that the impacts are primarily going to affect polar bears and poor people in Bangladesh. Americans are beginning to think that climate change actually may be affecting us right here in the U.S. here and now."
Americans were even willing to attribute non-weather events to climate change: Forty-six percent said they thought global warming might have made last summer's East Coast earthquake worse. Climate change can indirectly cause earthquakes in places like Greenland where melting ice is rapidly changing the load on Earth's crust, but it's highly unlikely that Virginia's quake had anything to do with climate, Leiserowitz said. Nonetheless, he said, some Americans may be associating news they've read about melting ice causing earthquakes with the Virginia quake. Others may simply be confused.
"By and large, most people lack a detailed understanding of climate change, how it works, what the causes are, what the impacts are likely to be and so on, so it's not that surprising that Americans confuse it with lots of other things," Leiserowitz said. "For example, we know that they also confuse it with the ozone hole."
Perceptions about climate affecting weather may be more scientifically based, however. Linking specific weather events to climate change is tricky business, but climate scientists do expect more large winter storms in a warming world. A report last month by the world's leading climate change group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, likewise found that global warming will bring more heat waves and droughts in some places.