Belief in Global Warming Drops After Cold Winter

Snowy swing set in Fairbanks, Alaska
Late-season snowstorms and cold temperatures have delayed the annual spring "breakup" in interior Alaska. (Image credit: Becky Oskin)

After an especially cold winter across much of the United States, the American public was slightly less convinced that the planet is heating up, a new survey shows.

A majority of Americans, or 63 percent, still believe there is solid evidence that global warming is real, according to the latest poll from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE). That number is down, however, from 67 percent who said the same in the fall.

"The fairly cold winter and slow arriving spring weather this year appears to have contributed to a slight decline in the number of Americans that think global warming is happening," said Chris Borick, director of the Muhlenberg Institute, which conducts the NSEE in partnership with the University of Michigan.

Previous research has shown that public opinion on climate change often shifts in response to weather events that seem to support or refute a warming trend.

Following a summer of record heat and the historically damaging Hurricane Sandy, a fall 2012 poll found that Americans' belief in global warming was at its highest since 2008, according to the NSEE. In that poll, Americans were more likely to cite weather events as the primary reason behind their acceptance of the reality of climate change. But after the chilly winter of 2013, Americans who believe warming is real were less likely to say that weather had influenced their opinion. [The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted]

The inverse pattern was observed in the 22 percent of Americans who don't believe there is solid evidence of climate change. Among them, just 18 percent cited weather-related factors in their skepticism last fall. But after the cold temperatures and snowy conditions in the winter of 2013, 31 percent of those doubters held up weather events as proof the planet isn't warming, the poll found.

Climate describes weather that occurs over long periods, such as decades, centuries or millennia. Scientists say no individual storm, heat wave or other weather event can be directly pinned on climate change, and despite an overall warning trend, there will always be cold snaps that make an area unusually chilly for days, weeks or even a month.

Global warming can, however, make some events, on average, more severe than they would have been in the past. Higher sea levels, for example, are thought to have set the stage for the devastating storm surge Hurricane Sandy unleashed on the East Coast last year.

The NSEE also found that religion may be increasing doubt in the reality of global warming. Among those who expressed disbelief in climate change, 16 percent cited religious factors in their skepticism, compared with less than 1 percent inthe fall 2008. Some examples of these religious-minded skeptics included an elderly Alabama man who said "the Lord controls everything," and a middle-age Arkansas woman who said "the good Lord makes the weather," according to the survey.

The poll was conducted among 852 Americans between April 1 and April 14. It had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.