A new Yale study finds that more Americans are acknowledging the dangers of climate change than did two years ago.
Researchers at the Yale Project on Climate Change, a Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies initiative, have been studying American attitudes toward the phenomenon since 2002. In 2010, their poll found that 63 percent of Americans “understood” that climate change was taking place. In their new report, they discovered that a large majority of Americans attribute recent extreme weather events to climate change, an uptick since 2010.
The study was precipitated by extreme weather patterns this past year, including Hurricane Irene, which hit the northeast in late August, droughts across Texas and the Great Plains, and floods along the banks of the Mississippi River Valley. In total, 14 major natural disasters cost the United States $53 billion in damages this year, according to the study.
The study also said that America saw a record high temperatures this winter, with temperatures across the contiguous United States averaging 6.0 degrees above the long-term projected average.
“[The change in perception is] driven by the experiences Americans have gone through over the last few years,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, lead author of the study and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “We went through a very unusual winter in the United States, and we wanted to see if Americans were connecting between the dots between that and climate change.”
The researchers conducted 1,008 interviews across the United States in March 2012 and discovered that 82 percent of respondents said they have experienced at least one form of extreme weather. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that weather patterns are getting worse, and a large majority, 72 percent of respondents, attributed these extreme weather events to climate change.
According to Leiserowitz, this figure represents an increase from the 55 percent of people who were very or somewhat worried about global warming in the 2010 survey, which asked a slightly different question. He said that this percentage has steadily risen since 2002 and peaked in 2008.
This rise, Leiserowitz said, can be partially attributed to climate change’s prominent status in the media. In the past decade, both former Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received Nobel Prizes, increasing awareness of the issue.
Ben Cashore, professor of environmental governance and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, said that this trend can be largely attributed to the performance of the economy. When the United States went into a recession in 2008, Americans’ concerns about jobs overrode their concerns about the effects of climate change.
“The economy almost always trumps climate concerns even though, in the long term, we know that is a ridiculous comparison to make,” Cashore said. “They’re only [at] loggerheads in the short term.”
The study also found that media sources — especially weather forecasts — rarely discuss climate change. Only 20 percent of respondents reported witnessing their local weather forecaster mention climate change, though over half said they would like to see climate change mentioned with relation to weather.
Leiserowitz said that coverage of climate change by national broadcasters NBC, CBS and ABC has dropped 90 percent since its peak in 2007.
Joshua Benton ’97, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, said that a false sense of balance in environmental reporting may also be contributing to the problem. When reporters write stories having to do with climate change, he said, they try to source both sides — inevitably giving naysayers more weight in a story than their science deserves.
He added that many news organizations have been forced by financial difficulties to cut their environmental beat reporters.
“Most people know about the issue only through what they read in the media,” Leiserowitz said. “Now, it’s out of sight and out of mind. It hasn’t totally disappeared, but it’s just not salient anymore.”
Despite Americans’ renewed belief in climate change, not many are prepared for a natural disaster like those that climate models forecast. Only 36 percent of the study’s respondents said they had an emergency plan for natural disasters.
Cashore says that this individual inability to take long-term precautions is affecting the government’s ability to legislate long-term preventive and adaptive strategies to deal with climate change.
Some experts believe that long-term action to combat climate change is unnecessary, said Gary Libecap, professor in corporate environmental management at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank. Libecap said that scientists and lawmakers are extrapolating off a span of extreme weather that is too short to draw significant conclusions.
“In the 1930s we had nearly 10 years of unprecedented (in our experience) drought and heat in the Great Plains,” he said. “But would we attribute the Dust Bowl to climate change?”
Thomas Moore, another Hoover Institution fellow, echoed Libecap’s sentiment. He said that people should be prepared for a warmer climate, but it will not bring “the catastrophe that Al Gore predicts.”
In March alone, 15,292 warm temperature records were broken.