Extreme weather is changing minds on climate

Benjamin Schneider

Less than a year after extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy and severe droughts ravaged American communities, it was welcome news that President Obama included climate change adaptation as a central component of his new Climate Action Plan. Extreme weather is on the rise, and last year showed us far too often what can happen when we are not prepared.

Considering the trend, perhaps it is little wonder that a recent study from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is the latest to affirm a trend that’s been developing for some time: clear majorities of Americans increasingly believe extreme weather events are linked to climate change.

You can read the full report here, but here are a few highlights:

  • Nearly six in ten Americans believe climate change “is affecting weather in the United States.”
  • Just 10% of Americans don’t believe climate change is real.
  • Two out of three Americans believe the nation’s weather has grown worse in the past few years.
  • A large majority of Americans – 85% – say they experienced extreme weather in the last year.

That last point in particular may help explain why we’re seeing more people make a connection. Traditional messages about the dangers of a warming planet – a scary future for our grandchildren, rising sea levels, etc. – have long resonated with the environmental movement, of course. But they usually fall on deaf ears when directed at conservatives and moderates. Many people simply don’t relate to something that seems as big and remote – as “global” – as climate change.

But the increase in extreme weather means more and more people are able to see the impact firsthand, on their families and communities, of events like Hurricane Sandy and last year’s drought in the Midwest. It’s these real-world, observable, and sometimes local impacts that appear to be changing minds among Americans who used to be skeptical about climate change.

It’s good that more people are seeing the connection. But we still have a long way to go. The issue of climate change and its causes are still sharply divided along partisan lines. More than twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe there is scientific consensus that climate change is largely caused by human activity.

Still, the tragic and devastating consequences of extreme weather do appear to be conveying the dangers of climate change to new people. And hopefully Obama’s plan will prompt more conversations among all people – whatever their political stripes about the reality of climate change and what’s needed to stop it.

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