Belief in Climate Change Depends on Which Way the Wind Blows

More people think the climate is changing, and many say the weather convinced them

People cited their experience of warmer temperatures as a major influence in their views of climate change.

Most Americans now say that the climate is changing, according to the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change (PDF). Nearly two out of three people (62%) answered “yes” to the question, “Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?” The primary reasons they gave for that answer? About one in four said it’s because they’ve observed warmer temperatures, and an identical 24% because they’ve observed weather changes — and the survey was taken last fall, before this year’s generally mild winter in the U.S. had entered the national chatter (we recall a recent tweet from NOAA saying that Midland, TX had logged more snowfall this winter than New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined).

Nonetheless, the poll did follow a year of weird weather and suggests that belief in climate change is edging back up. This is the first time since the fall of 2009 that this particular survey shows public accord with the majority of scientists topping 60%.

The survey, conducted by the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, includes comments from some of the respondents. A sampling of those: “winters just aren’t as cold as they were in the past,” “this time of year is warmer than it is expected to be,” and “temperatures last summer that were awful,” and, on the other side: “winters were just as cold as when I was a kid,” and “we had more snow last year than ever.”

“Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”
— Robert A. Heinlein

Even though plenty of people see the weather they observe as evidence for or against climate change, climate scientists are hesitant to do the same. At this point, it’s not possible to pinpoint the exact cause of any single weather event — or even to say, for example, “This winter was warm and dry, and that’s because of climate change.”

Other numbers worth noting from the poll:

  • 78% of Democrats believe there is solid evidence, compared to 47% of Republicans, and 55% of Independents.
  • People are generally concerned about melting glaciers and polar ice (56% who said the climate is changing cited that as a factor that has “a very large effect” on their views)
  • 46% cited accounts of disappearing polar bears and penguins as a factor in their views

Though listed among the most influential factors, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change barely made the list. Just 13% cited the transnational group of scientists as a factor.

And (news flash): Faith in scientists and the media is thin. Of people who do say climate change is happening, 28% say scientists are overstating the facts for their own purposes, and 34% think the media are overstating the issue. Among those who don’t think it’s happening: 81% say scientists are overstating the facts, and 90% think the press is.