Americans don’t attribute unusually cold or dry winter to climate change — poll

Source: Julia Pyper, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Frigid temperatures gripped large swaths of the United States this winter, while southwestern parts of the country were hit with severe drought, but only a small number of Americans link these phenomena to climate change, according to a new Gallup poll.
Two-thirds of respondents in the national survey (66 percent) said they are experiencing colder-than-usual temperatures this winter, but of that group 29 percent attributed it to human-caused climate change. The vast majority (70 percent) attributed the unusual weather to the “normal variation in temperatures.”A quarter of respondents said they were experiencing drought conditions, a number that’s likely limited by the fact that drought conditions are largely confined to one area of the country, according to the Gallup analysis. Of those experiencing drought, 60 percent said they believe it’s due to normal variation in rainfall, while 36 percent attributed it to global warming and 4 percent said they were unsure.

According to Gallup analyst Jeff Jones, views on this winter’s weather extremes could be influenced by Americans’ lack of concern about climate change. According to an earlier Gallup poll, 36 percent of Americans believe global warming will pose a serious threat to their way of life during their lifetime (ClimateWire, March 14).

The latest poll was also deeply politically divided. Forty-seven percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who claimed they had experienced colder temperatures attributed them to climate change, compared to 11 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

The same trend appeared in the drought analysis, with 51 percent of Democratic respondents who reported dry conditions chalking it up to global warming, compared to 14 percent of Republicans.

“So much of this is informed by politics — Republicans are very skeptical about global warming; Democrats generally buy into it. But as we’ve seen they don’t all necessarily attribute extreme weather to it,” Jones wrote in an email.

Conflict with other polls

The Gallup findings clash with a set of recent polls conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. In a poll conducted last November, more than half of respondents (53 percent) said they were “somewhat” or “very worried” about global warming.

Another Yale poll found less divergence between Democrats and Republicans on climate-related issues. The study found that 82 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans support the purchase of energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. Also, a majority from both parties — 85 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans — supported regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

The Yale survey found that overall the vast majority of Americans (83 percent) say the United States should attempt to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.

Aaron Huertas, science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he found the questions in the latest Gallup poll to be oversimplified.

“I think it’s misleading for polls to ask people whether or not they think weather is due to natural variation on the one hand or human-caused climate change on the other hand. In reality, climate change is affecting all weather, and that’s happening on top of natural variation,” he said. “In some cases, scientists have a clear picture of how climate change is affecting specific types of weather events, while in other cases, the evidence is much less clear.”

Huertas explained that there are clear links between climate change and extreme weather and heat waves, for instance. The links between climate change and tornadoes, however, are much less clear.

On cold weather, the science is mixed, he said. Emerging observational evidence shows links between melting Arctic ice and changes in atmospheric circulation patterns that can dump cold air onto the eastern United States. But the research is not yet clear, he said, and so it remains an active area of research.

The Gallup poll was based on telephone interviews with 1,048 adults living in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., conducted March 6-9. The reporting margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.