Weather and Climate Change

Will Oremus puts his finger on a sensitive topic: the correlation of weather and views on climate change.

Before the financial crisis hit, Americans were pretty sure that the globe was warming, and that humans were causing it, and that it was kind of a big deal. As the economy slumped, Americans decided that climate change wasn’t actually happening—and even if it was, it wasn’t our fault. And now, after a flurry of wild weather—deadly tornados, floods, droughts, an uncommonly mild winter, and recent heat waves—U.S. residents are back to believing that global warming is real. But we’re still hesitant to take the blame.

These generalizations are based on a series of Yale University studies over the last few years. According to Yale, Americans’ belief in global warming fell from 71 percent in November 2008 to just 57 percent in January 2010 but rebounded to 66 percent by this spring. The findings mirrored those of the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, which showed belief in global warming bouncing from 65 percent in 2009 to 52 percent in 2010 andback up to 62 percent this year.

What accounts for the rebound? It isn’t the economy, which has thawed only a little. And it doesn’t seem to be science: The percentage of respondents to the Yale survey who believe “most scientists think global warming is happening” is stuck at 35 percent, still way down from 48 percent four years ago. (The statement remains just as true now as it was then—it’s the public, not the scientists, that keeps changing its mind.)

No, our resurgent belief in global warming seems to be a function of the weather.  A separate Yale survey this spring found that 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced extreme weather or natural disasters in the past year. And 52 percent said they believed the weather had been getting worse overall in recent years, compared to just 22 percent who thought it had gotten better.

Maybe it was all that priming, but 69 percent of respondents in that March poll went on to say that they believed global warming was affecting the weather in the United States. And that, of course, was before the Colorado wildfires, and before the most recent wave of storms and heat in the Midwest and Northeast, which have brought renewed media attention to climate change. If you polled the country today, the number might well top 70 percent.

To the science-minded, it might be disconcerting that the weather drives Americans’ beliefs about climate change. After all, scientists’ models have been showing and predicting climate change for decades. And global warming’s relationship to any given weather trend is probabilistic, not causal, as David Roberts explained in a thoughtful Grist post recently.


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  • Fish

    It seems to me that you can have strange weather without climate change, but you cannot have climate change without experiencing strange weather.

    My views of climate change have not changed, but I can understand how other people who don’t believe in it (like ‘belief’ matters one iota to scientific phenomena) might have those beliefs shaken when confronted with weather like they have never experienced before in their lives.

  • Darrin

    Note to self: find out where the 18% of Americans live who haven’t experienced extreme weather in the past year and move there…

  • DRT

    So it is dumb luck that the weather got hot and extreme this year and that is convincing people that climate change is real. I’ll take it.

  • Attention spans of hummingbirds, I tell you. 😉

  • toddh

    That is a fascinating correlation. For those interested in if the latest crazy weather has anything to do with human-induced climate change, I offer this post from Cliff Mass, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington:

    Mass is no global-warming denier; in fact he sees it as likely. However, he takes a very nuanced, empirically-based view that is worth noting.

  • David Philpott

    This has been something that has been discussed a fair amount. Not everyone agrees that this assessment is the full picture:

    Haven’t checked to see if there have been any formal responses to that particular paper.

  • Brian Scarborough

    The warmest year in recent history was 1998. There has been no global warming since then, but rather some cooling. This year might be an exception. There has always been extreme weather at various times and places – ask some older folks. “Climate change” is such a vague term as to be practically meaningless. The climate is always changing. We really do not know what the effect, either good or bad, that human activity has on the climate.

  • saladyears

    Sorry, Brian, but you are retreading a well-worn argument that has been debunked numerous times. The only temperature series that shows 1998 as the highest is HadCRUT3, which has been replaced this year with HadCRUT4 because HadCRUT3 had a well-known cool bias due to it not accurately dealing with the incredible warmth in the arctic. So there isn’t even a single leg (out of 6) to stand on for this argument anymore.


    for the actual peer-reviewed science.

  • Bev Mitchell

    It’s all about Limits to Growth

    I cut my teeth on “Limits to Growth”, the 1972 version. The 30-year update was published in 2004. The conclusions from 30 years previous held up remarkably well. Interestingly, there are still only 39 reviews of this important work on Amazon. This pathetic little number speaks volumes. The problem is so much broader than global warming. There is no need to get stuck on the details of one, albeit terribly important area and debate relative models – or watch for bad weather. The limits we face are manifold and it’s long past time for the rich parts of the world to get the message. 

    Another great source of information on a broad scale is the annual “State of the World” put out for the last 30 years by the Worldwatch Institute. The other day in our environmental discussion here someone mentioned strategies. Worldwatch has been providing excellent focus on strategy for  thirty years. Check it out at:

    For example, here are the 17 chapter titles for the 2012 edition. You can see there is something here for everyone. This series of book belongs in every church library – especially conservative evangelical ones. Imagine the benefits if conservative Christians would capture this view with their characteristic urgency.

    Making the Green Economy Work for Everybody
    The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries
    Planning for Inclusive Sustainable Urban Development
    Moving Toward Sustainable Transport
    Information and Communications Technologies Creating Livable, Equitable, Sustainable Cities
    Measuring U.S. Sustainable Urban Development
    Reinventing the Corporation
    A New Global Architecture for Sustainability Governance
    Nine Population Strategies to Stop Short of 9 Billion
    From Light Green to Sustainable Buildings
    Public Policies on More-Sustainable Consumption
    Mobilizing the Business Community in Brazil and Beyond
    Growing a Sustainable Future
    Food Security and Equity in a Climate-Constrained World
    Biodiversity: Combating the Sixth Mass Extinction
    Ecosystem Services for Sustainable Prosperity
    Getting Local Government Right

  • Barry

    Seconding saladyears – Brian, where did you get that idea from? Please note that it’s wrong, pure and simple.

    Please re-evaluate the source of that story, and judge whatever else they say with due caution.

  • Andy

    I get sceptical about anything when science co-opts the language and certainty that religion normaly owns. That people get treated as heretics for failing to believe, or failing to bow to the theory of the day.

    The bigger issue is how do we use the resources that God has put in the world to best bring him glory? are we at risk of being the servant that buried the talent and didn’t use it when we seek to not use the resources of the earth in a responsible way? If we know there is coal that can cheaply and safely be used to provide electricity for lighting and cooking for the third world, don’t we owe some kind of neighbourly love to them, or are the poor to remain with their costly and dangerous kerosene appliances?

  • Bev Mitchell

    You say,
    “The bigger issue is how do we use the resources that God has put in the world to best bring him glory.” 

    You should have stopped right there. The rest is a smoke screen. And, speaking of resources, which includes clean air and water as well as coal, the first thing we need to know about them is that they are limited and unevenly distributed. It’s by starting with this basic knowledge that we can begin to make some small steps toward sharing them more equitably and using them more like God would wants us to. It’s our basic failure to recognize God given limits of all kinds that have put us in this horrible bind.

    There really are limits to growth, all kinds of growth. No amount of smoke, mirrors, misreading, obfuscation or wishful thinking will change that. We recognize limits and live accordingly or we will end up, soon, in a mess far bigger than anyone can imagine. No one is trying to fool you, except the people who tell you that we can continue doing things the way we are currently doing them.

  • DRT

    Andy#11, let me throw a scenario out there and see what you think.

    Let’s say that instead of building the military, roads and computers (just general categories here of advanced stuff), we concentrated all of our resources on wind power, medicine, contemplation and sustainable living. Would that not be a better use of god’s resources?

    Your comment assumes a value system I do not share.

  • DRT

    And Andy, I take great exception to you insulting me by saying that I am bowing to science and implying that you are somehow more noble for distrusting it. You rely on science plenty. Do you have a microwave? Do you drive a car? Do I really need to say more?

  • DRT

    Someone here recently alluded to someone else discussing strategy, so I will take that as a soapbox.

    Andy, the problem with the view you set out, using coal to displace kerosene is essentially not strategic. The way you can tell the difference between a strategic decision and a non-strategic decision is that the former presumes nothing and establishes a goal, while the later assumes the status quo and establishes a path from there.

    We cannot solve these problems with tactical thought processes. We have to imagine the goal and then do what must be done with various tactics to achieve the goal. There are very few people who think strategically.

  • Andy

    DRT: I merely said that in appropriating the language of religion, and in particular the way that religious groups vilify people who disagree with them, science has lost the scepticism which marks true science. it should be forever about trying to disprove itself rather than engaging in what appears to be efforts to bolster a particular view. I see the same attitude towards science in evolutionists being closed minded to supernatural creation. My work brings me daily into close contact with computer modelling, and i know well that the more complex a model is, the less you should trust it, and the more assumptions it will be based on. Climate modelling is orders of magnitude more complex than my work, and yet it is treated as something which is as reliable as the speed of light in a vacuum.

    I’m not trolling, but am genuinely curious how deliberately choosing not to raise the living standards of the poorest of the poor through cheap electricity (coal fired) and the development using the resources that we know of isn’t a really close analogy to the parable of the talents. The resources can just as readily be used for whatever purposes you’d consider noble and virtuous as military purposes and the evils of microsoft.

    The interesting word you used is “sustainable”. How long do the resources on the earth need to last?