Extreme Weather Spurs Belief in Global Warming

After losing some Americans to deniers, opinions shift.

us map, us on fire, fire in the us
Belief in global warming is heating up. But will public opinion sway if the weather calms down? (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Droughts. Floods. Both the mildest and nastiest winter in years. The past year has had more than its fair share of natural disasters, and people are noticing. According to a new study from the Brookings Institute, 62 percent of Americans are now believers in man-made climate change, which is the highest level since 2009.

But is this a reaction to the past year's extreme and unpredictable weather or an informed judgment? Said University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver to the Boston Globe: "I'm pleased that Americans believe in thermometers. People feel confident about what they personally experience. They mix up the difference between weather and climate. It's not unexpected. It's human nature."

But there's another force at play. Back when the survey first began in 2008, around 75 percent of Americans believed in global warming. By spring 2010, that number had dipped to just 50 percent. Said Christopher Borick, co-author of the survey, to the Los Angeles Times, it was a little mysterious:

Our poll, Pew, Gallup, others, saw it drop by about 20 points in about 2 years, which is really odd. You see it with presidential approval levels, you see it with views on transient subjects, but on long-term things, it just doesn’t happen like that.

The explanation, he said, was the impact of a "concerted effort" by discreditors and deniers:

A lot of people mentioned the increased polarization of the subject. Since 2008, there were some really concerted efforts on the part of several groups and interests to discredit climate change. All of these things had a role in chipping away at the levels of belief in the country.”

Belief in global warming has become a consistent casualty in this culture war of attrition. A bump to 62 percent, while modest, is a significant step in the right direction. Meanwhile, around the world the most wired, educated and environmentally conscious countries tend to have the most believers: 92 percent of South Koreans, 87 percent of Costa Ricans, and 84 percent of Greeks believe humans play a role in global warming. While we're not there yet, hopefully what we're seeing here isn't just an emotional reaction to the latest weather, but common sense recovering from a long campaign of misdirection.

The cracks in the denial machine may be starting to show. In October, prominent Berkeley physicist and climate-change denier Richard Muller recanted, convinced by mounting statistical evidence. And in Feburary, the Heartland Institute's plan to teach climate denial to school children was revealed in leaked emails, giving an eye-opening glimpse into their funding and strategy. We still have a long way to go, but the recent turn of events warrants cautious optimism. Maybe the economy's not the only thing on the mend.

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