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Study finds large majority of Americans connect extreme weather events to climate change

Photo courtesy of NOAA
A mesocyclone tornado

You’ve probably noticed we’ve had a strange spring.

This March – the warm temperatures broke 15,292 weather records across the country.   And last year... there were 14 weather-related disasters that each caused $1 billion – or more – in damages.

A new study finds a large majority of Americans are now connecting specific extreme weather events to climate change.

The study is part of a long-term project called Climate Change in the American Mind.  It’s by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication.

Here's an excerpt:

A majority of Americans say the weather in the United States is getting worse and many report that extreme weather in their own local area has become more frequent and damaging. Further, large majorities believe that global warming made a number of recent extreme weather events worse. Only about a third of Americans, however, have either a disaster emergency plan or an emergency supply kit in their homes.

Ed Maibach directs George Mason’s climate change center.  He and his colleagues found that 82 percent of Americans personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year.  I asked him how these experiences are affecting people’s understanding of climate change.

"We know that most Americans believe the climate is changing, and now, this latest survey shows us that a lot of people are connecting the experience of the extreme weather they’re experiencing to the fact that the climate is changing."

But he says not too many people understand the difference between weather and climate.

"Weather and climate tend to be confused as being one and the same. Of course, climate is defined as the average weather over a long period of time, often 30 years. Weather is by its very nature variable, but climate change is making weather even more variable and even more extreme and people are clearly picking up on that."

The tricky thing is... when there's an unusually cold winter or record snowfall, that can undermine many people's understanding of the connection between climate change and weather.

"Extreme weather events that fall outside of our expectations of global warming such as particularly cold or snowy weather will tend to undermine our belief in climate change. Whereas those unusual or extreme weather events that fall within our expectations of what a changing climate should look like, such as a drought or an extreme heat event, heat wave, those will tend to support or reaffirm our belief that the climate is changing."

Maibach says many Americans depend on the media to help them understand the relationship between climate change and what's happening outside their windows... but most TV weathercasters don't spend much time talking about climate change and its effect on weather.

"Although we have surveyed America’s TV meteorologists twice over the past two years and we found that a lot of them would like to start educating their viewers about the difference between climate and weather and about the ways in which climate change is affecting their weather. It’s a difficult thing to do, in the short period of time that weathercasters have on the air each day, but I think you’re going to start seeing it more and more as we go forward."

Maibach says what politicians say - both positively and negatively - on the subject of climate change also shapes Americans' understanding. 

"Unfortunately, the political divisions seem to keep deepening.  And the real question is, what are we going to do to try to bring Americans of all political parties back together onto the same song sheet, so we can stop debating something that the scientists answered a long time ago, which is – is climate change real? – and we can start talking about what we want to do about it. 

The most serious misperception about climate change in America today is the belief that there’s a lot of disagreement among the climate scientists about whether or not climate change is real and human caused. Virtually all climate experts are in agreement that it is both real and human caused. Yet only about one out of three, maybe as much as 40% of Americans understand that to be the case.  So America’s climate scientists have got to do a better job of conveying the fact that they have in fact reached consensus."





Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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