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Extreme Weather Affecting Public Views on Climate in U.S.

18 July 2012 6:15 pm
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Anthony Leiserowitz et al., Global Warming’s Six Americas

The verdict from the latest comprehensive study of U.S. opinion on climate change, released today? There's a "substantial" increase in the fraction of Americans who are concerned about the issue, says political scientist Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University, who co-led the study with Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and others.

Between 2008 and 2010, comparing various polls (see graph), there was on average a 16% drop in the fraction of Americans who agreed with statements roughly equivalent to "global warming is happening." Since then, the data show American acceptance of the reality of climate change has been steadily rebounding, with 66% of respondents in the Yale survey agreeing that it is happening, up from a low of 57% in 2010.

In partnership with his colleagues, Leiserowitz has conducted previous studies that have identified the "Six Americas" that exist when it comes to climate views. These range from the "Alarmed," which make up 13% of the respondents in the latest poll, to the "Dismissive," which are 10% of the sample. The other groups, in order of descending amount of concern and engagement, are the "Concerned (26%)," the "Cautious (29%)," the "Disengaged (6%)," and the "Doubtful (15%)."

Since Leiserowitz last conducted the poll in November 2011, the fraction of "Dismissive" plus "Doubtful" respondents—25%—and "Concerned" plus "Alarmed" ones—40%—has remained steady. But he calls it "significant" that the size of the "Cautious" cohort has risen by 5%, which happened at the same time as a 4% drop in the number who are "Disengaged"—a shift in the middle toward more concern.

Leiserowitz largely pins that trend to public views on extreme weather that the United States has been experiencing in recent years. "When you don't have strong beliefs you're very influenced by what's in your lived environment," says Leiserowitz, who released a related report on views on extreme weather in April. "Americans are beginning to connect the dots themselves between extreme weather events and climate change."

Other findings in the report may be promising for advocates of action on climate change.

  • 57% of "Alarmed" respondents say they're "extremely" sure global warming is happening, versus only 17% of "Dismissive" who say they're "extremely" sure it's not.
  • 70% of the "Dismissive" group "somewhat" or "strongly" distrust "climate scientists" as a source of information on climate, but 81% also of them distrust "oil and gas companies."
  • 94% of the "Dismissive" group distrusts President Barack Obama as a source of information about global warming, but 60% of them also distrust Mitt Romney on the issue.
  • Nationally, 58% of all polled disagree with the statement: "With the economy in such bad shape, the US can't afford to reduce global warming."
  • 79% of all polled want "more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power," despite continued criticism from Republicans in Washington on Obama's efforts in this regard.
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