Belief in Climate Change Grows: The Winter That Wasn't
I don't know how it's been where you are, but up here in the distant north, it's been the winter that wasn't. No snow. No ice. No cold. At least none worth noticing, and this after a year of cataclysmic floods and record snowfall. To call the weather weird is an exercise in great restraint. And the smart money can only hope we see more of it.
If we do, we just might actually finally get the national climate change wake-up call we need so badly. That's what the survey says, and I'm inclined to buy it.
According to research conducted at the University of Michigan and Muhlenburg College for the Brookings Institution, 62% of Americans now think global warming is real, an increase of 7% in the last year. Almost half have become true believers due to weather they've experienced themselves. The survey echoes a study from Hamilton College, which finds that people who have been through extreme weather events are more likely to support environmental regulations.
It seems that if we get enough wacky weather, we'll also get enough of a public opinion groundswell to take the forceful preventative action that's so far eluded us. It makes sense. Seeing is believing, and when you see a lot of weird weather out your window, the natural inclination is to think that something needs to be done about it.
Ironically, science says this legitimate perception really isn't legitimate at all and that day-to-day weather is actually a poor indicator of climate, which instead is what you get when you add up weather trends over time. And that's true: Look out my own window in August, and you'd deduce that Vermont's climate is hot and dry, when in reality it's generally cool and wet. What we see via any given meteorological snapshot is not an indication of what we're ultimately in for in the long run, hence all the science media hedging about whether this flood or that tornado outbreak is connected to global warming. But for all its rational appearances, could the scientific and political refusal to link specific extreme weather events to climate change be a cop-out?
I think so. Last year, climatologist Dr. Kevin Trenberth hit that nail on the head at the 91st Annual Meeting of the American Meteorology Society when he said,
"Given that global warming is unequivocal, the null hypothesis should be that all weather events are affected by global warming rather than the inane statements along the lines of 'of course we cannot attribute any particular weather event to global warming.'"
In other words, since all weather is now taking place in a climate that scientific consensus agrees is warming as a result of human influences, all weather is now obviously related to that warming in some way.
In fact, linking specific weird weather events to an overheating world and a changing climate is exactly what we need to be doing. According to the Hamilton College researchers:
"Communication and education emphasizing consequences of climate change salient to the individual's circumstances may be the most effective in changing attitudes of those least likely to support proenvironment policy. In addition, the timing of policy introduction could influence its success."
Translation: if you want to move hearts and minds to do something about global warming, your best bet is to draw a direct cause-and-effect connection between climate change and what's personally happening to people weatherwise, and to do it while their memories are still fresh. That's when people tend to believe it's time for action.
It's easy to do where heat waves, droughts, and balmy winters are concerned. It's a tougher sell during blizzards and cold snaps. Yet we now know that these events are increasingly if not entirely due to global warming as well.
Either way, it's time for scientists and decisionmakers alike to stop beating around the bush and start speaking frankly about the how the weather we're all experiencing is being affected by global warming right here, right now, and not for the better. (Just ask the people of Missouri.)
The only real question is can we reach the tipping point in public opinion and get something done to prevent atmospheric meltdown before we reach the tipping point in climate change? Looking at the weather forecast, I think just maybe we might.