Most Americans Link Global Warming to Weather Madness

Extreme weather such as heat waves, heavy downpours and droughts are expected to accompanying climate change. Recent research indicates this has begun happening.
Extreme weather such as heat waves, heavy downpours and droughts are expected to accompanying climate change. Recent research indicates this has begun happening. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Severe droughts in Texas and the Great Plains. Hurricane Irene sweeping the Eastern Seaboard. Tornadoes in the Midwest, and floods in Mississippi. Record-breaking temperatures across the U.S. With such widespread madness, it's no surprise that the majority of Americans say they have personally experienced an extreme weather event or natural disaster in the past year.

That's according to a new nationally representative survey that also found a majority of Americans say U.S. weather is getting worse. Furthermore, a large majority of Americans think global warming made several high-profile weather events even worse.

The results, which are part of a long-term project at Yale, suggest global warming is becoming less of a "down the road" and "out of sight" issue and more of a "here and now" problem in the minds of Americans.

The researchers found early on in this project, a decade ago, that for many Americans climate change was a problem distant in time and space, "a problem about polar bears and Bangladesh, but not in my state, not in my community, not for the people and places I care about," said study researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, referring to the public.

"What's interesting about these results is that it suggests Americans are beginning to internalize climate change, to bring it into the here and now," Leiserowitz told LiveScience. "The past two years have been filled with a seemingly endless succession of extreme weather events." [10 Surprising Results of Global Warming]

On the American mind

He and his colleagues were interested to find out what people had experienced in terms of this extreme weather, what kinds of related harm they had experienced and how they had interpreted their experiences regarding climate change.

So they conducted a survey of more than 1,000 Americans ages 18 and older between March 12 and March 30, 2012.

(While scientists can't tie climate change to any one weather event, they do have evidence that with global warming extreme events will become more common.)

Overall, 82 percent of Americans said they experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year, with those in the Northeast more likely to have experienced extreme high winds, rainstorms, cold temperatures, snowstorms, floods and hurricanes.

Midwesterners were more likely than others to have experienced extreme high winds, rainstorms, snowstorms and tornadoes. People in the South were more likely to report having experienced an extreme heat wave or drought, while Westerners were more likely to report experiencing wildfires. Not only that, but 35 percent said they were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these extreme weather events.

Who supports global warming?

So are more Americans now accepting scientifically backed man-made global warming? That depends on which Americans we are referring to. Leiserowitz has found that with regard to climate, there are six American publics, each with varying views, knowledge and interest in this issue. While the extreme views — the dismissive group who link conspiracy with climate change and the solid backers of the phenomenon — are staying put regardless of extreme weather, he said.

The groups in the middle are the people who pay attention to global warming but don't know much about it, using their personal experiences and what they see on national news to form an opinion. These personal and vicarious experiences of extreme weather start to accumulate in their minds. "That's what we think is starting to happen for people," Leiserowitz said. One natural disaster they might see as random; two, that's a coincidence; but three, and you're starting to see a pattern. [Quiz: Weather vs. Climate]

And these Americans aren't expecting the weather to get any better, it seems. Fifty-one percent believe the extreme weather will cause a natural disaster in their own community in the next year.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.