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Extreme Weather and Climate Change: The Public Gets It

For years, we who communicate about climate change have been wringing our hands over how to make people understand the problem at a gut level. Endangered polar bears? Too far removed. Island nations like the Maldives sinking beneath the waves? Too far away. Hot temperatures by 2100? Too far in the future.

But like the first, outlying squalls from an oncoming hurricane, the first effects of climate change are already here, in the form of heat waves, droughts, intense rainstorms and more, and people are evidently noticing. Not just the extremes themselves: you couldn’t have missed those, or at least the news coverage about them. But people are also starting to connect extreme weather events to the changing climate.  

We know this thanks to a new report on Extreme Weather, Climate & Preparedness, by Anthony Leiserowitz and his colleagues at the Yale Project on Climate Communication. It’s a survey of public attitudes, based on responses from 1,008 adults, gathered last month (which was, as we’ve noted, the warmest on record for the lower 48 states of the U.S.). The highlights, as featured on the report’s website:

  • 82 percent of Americans report that they personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or a natural disaster in the past year;
  • 35 percent of all Americans report that they were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these extreme weather events in the past year;
  • Over the past several years, Americans say the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse – rather than better – by a margin of over 2 to 1 (52% vs. 22%);
  • A large majority of Americans believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse, 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%);
  • Only 36 percent of Americans have a disaster emergency plan that all members of their family know about or an emergency supply kit in their home (37%).

The bullet point on extreme weather is telling: scientists have long predicted that these events would be a consequence of climate change, but until recently, the connection has been largely theoretical. It should happen as rising temperatures disrupt weather patterns, but what should happen and what does don’t always match up.

This year, however climate scientists have begun to turn up evidence to support their theories; much of it appeared in an IPCC report titled "Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Adaptation," published last month. The authors of this report were careful to cite links they were reasonably sure about — between climate and droughts, heat waves and rainstorms. Where they couldn’t be so sure, they remained agnostic. Floods, for example, seem like a pretty obvious consequence of heavy rains, but there isn’t enough evidence to connect the dots firmly yet, so scientists won’t do it.

The public, however, has no such qualms. As a story in the New York Times about the Yale survey puts it, “Scientists may hesitate to link some of the weather extremes of recent years to global warming — but the public, it seems, is already there.”

That’s because the public sometimes connects dots that aren’t necessarily related, or at least, not yet. In the example cited above, 59% of the respondents connected Hurricane Irene with climate change, but currently, science can’t connect any single storm to climate change. There’s also little evidence — yet — that the killer tornadoes of last year and the ones that are popping up in this new tornado season are triggered by climate change. They might well be, but scientists can’t connect those particular dots, either. Yet the Times story was illustrated with a photo of a tornado.

Is it a bad thing that the public sees patterns where they don’t necessarily exist? Maybe, but the human brain has evolved to be a powerful pattern-recognition machine. Sometimes it makes mistakes, but for our evolutionary ancestors, it was better to think they saw a tiger in the leaves when it wasn’t there than to miss one when it was.

On balance, the recognition that climate change and extreme weather are indeed related is a significant step forward in an area where too much doubt and confusion have reigned for too long.

« Climate in Context


By john werneken (vancouver)
on April 21st, 2012

How is a new brand of ignorance a step forward? Obviously what people do affects the world…just look at Sicily, from world grain belt to desert between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE. So what. Which objectives and peoples are to be sacrificed or penalized, at whose control, and with what result? THAT is the issue, not whether *** Damned climate is being changed by people. Of course it is, has been for thousands of years.

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By Scott Hollington (Minneapolis MN 55446)
on April 21st, 2012

While Mr Lemonick has an interesting article, he should stick to the facts.  Without a doubt, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen over the past 100 years.  Without a doubt, temperatures measured in the northern hemisphere rose a fraction of a degree C, on average in the late nineties.  Without a doubt, increased temperatures have had some effect on our weather.

Factually incorrect statements in this article include:  Polar bears (population does not meet the criteria for endangered).  Sinking Maldives (not related to temperature or climate change).  Hot temperatures by 2100 (not certain, not supported by data)

The human brain is easily deceived by anecdotal data.  Exactly the kind of data that Mr Lemonick presents.  Speculation that the human brain is better at detecting patterns than statistical analysis would be laughable, were it not being presented as scientific.

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By Tom Moriarty (Arvada/Colorado/80005)
on April 21st, 2012

Perhap the folks who “get it” might consider the following data…

From the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, number of strong to violent tornadoes as a function of time (1950 to present)

Or how about Global and Northern Hemisphere Accumulated Cyclone Energy…

If people are interested in “connecting the dots,” well here are a few more to connect…

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By tim blincoe (85259)
on April 22nd, 2012

Im so glad that the ethical pole vaulters set the bar way up there to only cite and here I quote you “links that they were REASONABLY sure about”. As opposed to years past when they just made crap up as fast as they could type. Im glad we are using the rigid scientific guidelines of “Larrys got a hunch about this thing and Im pretty sure hes gettin warm”. What a joke if you were around when the beaver trapping industry ruled the globe Im quite certain you would be credited with a lengthy catalogue of stories proclaiming that beaver was here to stay and there is a little thing called buffalo hunting that will be employing Americans well into the year 2000. observable and repeatable observable and repeatable observable and repeatable observable and repeatable. Do those two words mean anything to you great wizards of the climate scam industry? Just wondering how important you think those concepts are vis a vis all of your elaborate climate models

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By Don (Austin, TX 78682)
on April 22nd, 2012

So let me see if I have this correct.

There is no evidence that “climate change” is resulting in extreme weather.

Any connection between the two is scientifically unsound.

There is an actual project dedicated to propagandizing Climate Change.

People are actually beginning to believe the propaganda.

And we are all supposed to believe that Climate Change “Science” is for real.

You and your ilk are quacks.

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By Cary Strickland (Major, USAF (Retired) (Fort Pierce, FL, 34982)
on April 22nd, 2012

Total nonsense.  Anecdotal evidence won’t prove anthropogenic global warming.

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By Mark (Westerville, Ohio 43081)
on April 23rd, 2012

Let’s review: Endangered polar bears? They aren’t.  Island nations like the Maldives sinking beneath the waves? It’s not happening and there are no indictions it ever will. Hot temperatures by 2100? According to the global temperature record, we’re heading the opposite direction.
Droughts, heat waves, and heavy rains prove nothing. Indeed, extreme weather was a fact of life long before anyone decided the earth was warming. If hysteria over global warming has subsided, it’s because the public is finally weighing information that is being presented in a more balanced fashion, and realizing that much of what the global warmers have been asserting simply isn’t true. Rather than staking a judgement based on a regional weather event, please look at the long-term (and continually developing) data. You’ll see that much evidence supports the fact that temperature changes are not tied to CO2, and global temperatures have, in fact, been on the decline and will likely continue to decline for the next one or two decades.

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By J. Bob
on April 23rd, 2012

To bad some of the research people had lived in the 30’s. That was worse then recent years.

Seems NASA has come out against a global warming recent extreme weather connection.

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By SorryCharlie1 (CoganStation, PA 17701)
on April 23rd, 2012

Even the IPCC working group responsible for Extreme Events finds no causation between “Climate Change” and extreme weather events in its most recent report. The increasing damage and human casualties are more related to placement of infrastructure and deficient infrastructure.  It’s interesting that Mr. Lemonick resorts to hitherto dismissed theories of “it’s just weather” to support a theory which lacks uncontested data and is fading in the public mind.  The Warmists comprise little more than a typical end-of-the-world cult, whose main goal appears to be to control other people’s behavior.

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By john
on April 24th, 2012

Climate change propaganda 101

Mention a polar bear drowning in the first paragraph and use the word “killer” and “extreme” at least a dozen times in your article.

Conduct a opinion survey of an uninformed and apathetic sample using loaded questions, ” Are you concerned that killer tornadoes are caused by weather changes?”

Show a stock picture in the article of a tornado ravaged town, dead animal,or an ominous smoke stack next to starving children.

Say things that are inane but true and seem negative due to the context of the article. “The authors of this report were careful to cite links they were reasonably sure about ”” between climate and droughts, heat waves and rainstorms.Floods, for example, seem like a pretty obvious consequence of heavy rains”

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By JohnInCalifornia (Foothill Ranch/Ca/92610)
on April 24th, 2012

I’m 58 years old. I’ve experienced over 70 extreme weather conditions during my lifetime (most of them outside of California, but not all). in my college years, my buddies and I chased tornadoes. As a child, I frequently trudged in snow up to my chest (like Billy in Family Circle). I’ve seen water coming out of storm drains rising to seven feet, and with several of them doing this simultaneously, it sounded like a jet at Orange County prior to brake release and takeoff.

I remember my grandparents talking about severe cold, and miserable seasons that that killed off most of the family. I remember reading about the droughts in Oklahoma in the 30’s when I was in grade school.

So my question is: Who hasn’t experienced extreme weather? All my accounts about except one occurred before 1965 (we chased tornadoes through Kansas in 1973). Those weren’t due to Global Warming. At that time, we were still arguing about the coming ice age. That poll was silly - in the extreme! Here in California, we have always experienced extreme weather: we call it the flood season in the spring, and the fire season in late summer, and mudslide season in the fall. Great press. And occasionally, we get snow here in So Cal! Woo HOO! (and big deal.) Great memories, extreme weather - but without the death toll that my grandparents and parents described.

Lets get real. Especially as one who travels quite a bit, I see a lot of extreme weather. Worth talking about - but doesn’t over-shadow my grandparents stories - or those of my youth.

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By John
on July 14th, 2012

Copy and paste this link.  I think it really gets straight to the point about sea level rise.  And that Mr. Wizard sure is sharp!

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