After several years of declining “belief” in global warming, a recent poll suggests that 62% of Americans believe in global warming, up from 55% in the spring of 2011.
Why the shift? Fourteen weather disasters over the course of 2011 seem to have led to the change in public opinion. Half of Americans cited the local weather as their reason for believing in global warming, even though “weather” and “climate” are not the same thing.
It’s only natural that tornados, hurricanes, drought, and unusually warm winters would raise concern. 2011 was a record-breaking year for the number of major weather disasters, and it should have caught our attention. But if 2012 brings fewer major storms, will more people again express doubt about climate change?
It seems likely. A quarter of believers listed the temperatures they experienced as the reason for their opinion. Only 8% said “science” was behind their opinion. So this belief is just that—more an article of faith than a studied conclusion.
Earth’s temperature is rising. That is a scientific fact, most recently demonstrated by a rigorous study by a University of California physicist who had himself been a doubter. This poll shows, however, that Americans treat global warming as a matter of personal belief, rather than acceptance of scientific proof. One year, climate change doesn’t seem real, and the next year it does, because of personal experience. It’s irrational, but it’s human.
Should we be concerned that we rely on anecdotes and overlook a full analysis of the data in the face of a serious issue?
Long before last year’s tumultuous weather, I believed that climate change was real, scientifically and objectively. But last summer, a surprise tornado hit my hometown of West Springfield, Massachusetts. Who knew I lived in tornado country? Suddenly, climate change seemed more serious to me. So my thought process was like that of many others. Today, I’m inclined to be more deliberate in drawing conclusions.
Extreme weather reminds us of the power of the natural world. It affects us, and in turn we affect it. Humans collectively have become a geophysical force. The ups and downs of opinions captured by the polls miss that crucial fact.