A tornado in Kansas, April 2012. A new poll suggests the public feels that global warming is real. Gene Blevins / Reuters

[This result might be difficult to reconcile with recent Gallup poll results: U.S. worry about water, air pollution at historic lows – Concern about global warming dead last. Also, keep in mind recent research on characterizing the relationship of extreme weather to climate change, which may diverge greatly from naïve expectations.]

By JUSTIN GILLIS
17 April 2012

Scientists may hesitate to link some of the weather extremes of recent years to global warming — but the public, it seems, is already there.

A poll [pdf] due for release on Wednesday shows that a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

The survey, the most detailed to date on the public response to weather extremes, comes atop other polling showing a recent uptick in concern about climate change. Read together, the polls suggest that direct experience of erratic weather may be convincing some people that the problem is no longer just a vague and distant threat.

“Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,” said Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll. “People are starting to connect the dots.”

The poll opens a new window on public opinion about climate change.

A large majority of climate scientists say the climate is shifting in ways that could cause serious impacts, and they cite the human release of greenhouse gases as a principal cause. But a tiny, vocal minority of researchers contests that view, and has seemed in the last few years to be winning the battle of public opinion despite slim scientific evidence for their position.

The poll suggests that a solid majority of the public feels that global warming is real, a result consistent with other polls that have asked the question in various ways. When invited to agree or disagree with the statement, “global warming is affecting the weather in the United States,” 69 percent of respondents in the new poll said they agreed, while 30 percent disagreed.

Dr. Leiserowitz’s unit at Yale, along with researchers at George Mason University, commissioned the survey, conducted by Knowledge Networks. That company surveyed 1,008 American adults by computer in the last half of March, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

While many online polls are not representative of the broad public, Knowledge Networks is noted for its efforts to overcome this problem, including giving computers to households too poor to have them. The survey reveals public attitudes that are at least roughly consistent with scientific understanding of how the climate is changing.

For instance, when people were asked whether they attributed specific events to global warming, recent heat waves drew the largest majorities. Scientists say their statistical evidence for an increase of weather extremes is indeed strongest when it comes to heat waves.

Asked whether they agreed or disagreed that global warming had contributed to the unusually warm winter just past, 25 percent of the respondents said they strongly agreed that it had, and 47 percent said they somewhat agreed. Only 17 percent somewhat disagreed, and 11 percent strongly disagreed.

Majorities almost as large cited global warming as a likely factor in last year’s record summer heat wave, as well as the 2011 drought in Texas and Oklahoma. Smaller but still substantial majorities cited it as a factor in the record United States snowfalls of 2010 and 2011 and the Mississippi River floods of 2011. Those views, too, are consistent with scientific evidence, which suggests that global warming is causing heavier precipitation in all seasons.

One of the more striking findings was that 35 percent of the public reported being affected by extreme weather in the past year. The United States was hit in 2011 by a remarkable string of disasters affecting virtually every region, including droughts, floods, tornadoes and heat waves.

Dr. Leiserowitz said that recent events might be puncturing the public’s “very simplistic mental model of what global warming is supposed to be.” […]

In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change

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