It’s the Weather, Stupid: Slowly Re-Awakening the Public About Climate Change

Mon, 2012-07-23 06:01Chris Mooney
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It’s the Weather, Stupid: Slowly Re-Awakening the Public About Climate Change

The Yale and George Mason Centers on Climate Change Communication, collaborators on the well-known “Six Americas” studies of how the public views global warming, are out with their latest report, the fifth in the series. And it hints at an underlying theme discernible in many of these surveys: On climate change, the U.S. public is a lot like a weather vane. When there’s freaky weather—like now–people increasingly worry about global warming. When the weather is what they’re used to and expect, not so much.

Let’s start with some background on the “Six Americas” study: It began in the fall of 2008, that hopeful time when Barack Obama was soon to win the U.S. presidency and many thought he’d address the global warming problem within the short space of a year. In those days, fully half of the public fell into the two “Six Americas” audience segments that evince the most worry about global warming—the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned.” Yet by January of 2010–following “ClimateGate” and the failed Copenhagen summit–the number of Americans falling into these two segments had tumbled by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, the denialist segment of the public—the “Dismissive” category—had ballooned dramatically, from 7 percent to 16 percent.

Those were sad and depressing days for science and environment advocates; and when it comes to public opinion, we have not yet clawed back to where we were in the fall of 2008. But what the latest survey hints at is that the public is growing more concerned again—a finding that is particularly noteworthy in that these data only run through March of 2012, and thus really only take into account the freakily warm winter (not, you know, the summer heat waves, wildfires, and drought).

I’m betting that since March 2012, Americans have gotten even more alarmed over global warming–perhaps moving all the way back to where they were in fall 2008.

Anyway, what’s interesting in the latest data is that from November 2011 to March 2012, the number of Americans falling into the “Cautious” category on global warming had gone up considerably. (See figure 1a). This is a centrist category, leaning more towards being alarmed than toward being denialist, but still not fully convinced that humans are causing global warming. At the same time, the “Disengaged” category—even more skeptical than the “Cautious,” but not particularly fired up about denialism–has shrunk, as some of its members presumably moved in the direction of feeling “Cautious.”

In other words, it looks as though on global warming, the middle ground has been subtly shifting—and again, this is only through March 2012.

What does any of this have to do with the weather? Well, as Yale and George Mason note in a message to readers about the latest survey:

93 percent of the Alarmed92 percent of the Concerned74 percent of the Cautious, and 73 percent of the Disengaged say that global warming is affecting weather in the United States. Majorities of these groups also say that global warming made several extreme weather and natural disasters in 2011 worse, including the drought in Texas and Oklahoma, floods in the Mississippi River Valley, and record high temperatures across much of the U.S.

Remember that the “Cautious” and “Disengaged” normally aren’t even sure whether humans are causing global warming. Yet nevertheless, when asked about weird weather in March of 2012, they were quite sure global warming was behind it.

How much do you want to bet that they are even more sure of this now?

Another way of thinking about this is that the “Alarmed” and the “Concerned” are keyed in to the climate issue pretty much no matter what. So, for that matter, are the “Doubtful and Dismissive”–who stick to their denialist guns in the face of all counter-evidence (especially the “Dismissive”). But the “Cautious” and the “Disengaged”—those in the middle—are less reliable, more malleable, and more sensitive to things like weather. That means they’re most likely to move, to change their views.

In recent, powerful testimony before the House of Representatives, Joe Romm called upon our government to “do its job” and tackle global warming. If legislators are up to that challenge, I’m willing to bet the public will increasingly fall in behind them. 

Previous Comments

a survey in England shows concern for climate change has dropped below the USA and the UK has been very cold. In fact the US and British atheletes have had to go to warmer climates to continue preperations for the Olympics.

Interesting comments from Romm as his claim about a 10 degreeF temperature rise by the end of the century,  is based on current CO2 trends. Interesting because the current USA trend is negative and has been since 2006. In fact according to the EIA Q1 CO2 emissions data, the US emitted the same amount of CO2 from energy as we did in Q1 1990. It is likely Q2 will be lower as much less heating oil was needed with the warm April May June.

One of many problems though for Romm, is the feedback gap in the science. Water Vapor for instance is a key feedback in the theory that with a doubling of CO2, a 1 degreeC increase in CO2 leads to a 2 degreeC additional increase in temperature due to feedbacks, water vapor being one of the largest. In the last 22 years CO2 has risen 38.84 PPM shown here.

This is a 15% increase in the Log scale that CO2 is based on and should coincide with a .45 degreeC increase in global temperature with water vapor increase providing a large portion of that expected increase. According to HadCRUT3V global temperature data 1990 anomaly was +.248 degreesC and so far in 2012 we are at +.249 for a grand increase of +.001 degreesC rather than +.45 degreesC which is the period of time covered by data contained in new paper that indicates that NASA satellite data isn’t showing the increase in water vapor that has been assumed by the climate models.

These inconvenient facts and several others (like missing ocean heat) have REAL scientists concerned as science must meet criteria that seems to be evading the climate models.


@- Windy

I am puzzled by the assertion at the end of your post that -
“…data contained in new paper that indicates that NASA satellite data isn’t showing the increase in water vapor that has been assumed by the climate models.”

The link you provide goes to a pre-print abstract by Vonder Haar et al announcing the re-analysis of the various data sources to improve and extend the computor modeled dataset of global water vapor.
It does not go to any new data that refutes the other observations of increasing humidity. Perhaps you made a mistake with the link ?

There are other minor errors or mistakes in the post.

You claim a 15% (log) increase in CO2 would represent around 0.45degC warming with water vapor feedback since 1990. But that is the equalibrium (time lagged) feedback, NOT the instantaneous response.

You also use a 22 year period that starts during a strong and extended El Nino and ends in an equally extended La Nina. That alone would impose a ~0.4degC cooling over the period if there was no warming trend. Your choice of HadCRUv3 might also be misleading as it shows the lowest trend over this period, although even that is about +0.13degC/decade over the period. It requires carefull selection of start and end points to generate the very low figure you manage to quote.

Then there is the claim that the EIA data on carbon emissions indicates a decrease back to 1990 level in Q1.
But the EIA does not have currecnt total carbon emission data AFAIK.
The most recent data stops in 2008.

Perhaps you were looking at the oil consumption data which of course is suffering from the peak effect?

These unfortunate errors and several others might have REAL scientists concerned that the presentation of ‘facts’ you have made could be a bit misleading.


“a survey in England shows concern for climate change has dropped below the USA and the UK has been very cold”

According to MORI trust in climate change science is still pretty strong in the UK:

2 February 2012
Two out of three people (66%) say that scientists’ views on climate change are the ones they would trust the most, according to Ipsos MORI research

People see the extremes of weather in the UK and around the world and rightly suspect the hand of climate change in pushing those extremes.


global warming. Many of the survey companies use original surveys on global warming and haven’t updated to climate change in an effort to evaluate trends in thought. It really doesn’t matter as I still agree that people are influenced by current weather events. Do you disagree? Some people are of the mindset that a weather crisis is a good time to promote a political goal but in the end will it be effective?


Every good magician knows that the key to success is misdirecting the audience. You have to draw everyone’s attention away from your ultimate goal in order to perform the trick. Politics is no different, and one of the greatest misdirections in recent memory has been pulled off by the fossil fuel industry.

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