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.