Well, here’s something new for ya: after watching weirder and weirder weather unfold for the past few years, a poll released today (reported by the New York Times) shows that the majority of Americans believe these events are the result of – wait for it – climate change.
It’s certainly true that the past years have been an adventure. Between the infamous east coast Snowmageddon (which I missed, because I was totally in Abu Dhabi, no joke), record flooding of the Mississippi River in 2011, last year’s summer heat wave, the 2011 droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, increasing tornadoes across the midwest and southern U.S., and 2012 bringing the warmest March on record, there have been no shortage of unusual patterns. That’s just inside the U.S., too.
Conducted by Knowledge Networks on behalf of teams at Yale and George Mason University, the study itself is the most comprehensive to date tracking public opinion on climate change. By almost a 2 – to – 1 ratio, Americans believe extreme weather patterns are due to global warming. A higher percentage than ever say that they have personally been impacted by the effects of climate change. On top of that, after years where economic issues and concerns about international unrest eclipsed the issue of climate, the poll shows climate change is starting to climb the ranks once again. (As an aside, failure to act on climate and energy could have profound negative impacts for both international politics as well as the economy, so I’ve always seen the issues as linked – but that hasn’t been the case with popular opinion.)
Of course, whether or not these individual events ARE directly caused by climate change is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. Evidence is strongest that increased precipitation as well as heat waves are a result of climate change. Wind patterns are also shifting, which could be the cause of the recent increase in the number of tornadoes. But, as with most environmental issues, the science isn’t what sways public opinion. After all, the scientists have been beating the drum for years. We’ve seen the Keeling Curve showing the increase in CO2 detected by Manua Loa observatory in Hawaii.
We’ve all seen photos of flooding in Bangladesh, and sad pictures of polar bears trapped on a single block of ice. But it hasn’t done much. What sways public opinion, if past is precedent, is when people start to be impacted. When it’s my town, my home, my family, my friends, my job, or my future that is on the line, people start to sit up and listen. The issue, at that point, is real.
And that’s precisely why many advocacy groups are jumping on shifting weather patterns as an opening. Groups like 350.org, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, and other advocacy organizations see this as a way to grab public attention and increase momentum towards action. Perhaps for the first time, climate change is no longer a far-off warning that we might not live to see, but something that could actually impact our daily lives. That’s a new thought for a lot of folks, I think.
While it’s a shame that the past few decades politicized the issue and drowned out the voice of the scientific community, many are wondering if this real shift is what we need. For years, climate change deniers could point to the fact that there was ‘no concrete evidence’ as a way of poking holes in scientific data. Now, it seems events might be shifting to fall in favor of the other size of the fence.
Of course, whether or not any action comes of it remains to be seen. If not, we’ll just be buying those sustainable bikinis in January, right?