1 in 3 Americans blame climate change for weird winter temperatures

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2019

A hearty soul braces against the January wind in Frederick, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

This winter, temperatures plunged so low in the Midwest — at times below minus-50 degrees — that mail service stalledairline gas lines froze and Chicago set parts of its commuter rail on fire to stop the bone-deep chill from damaging the tracks.

Few would blame those gripped by the cold for not thinking very much about global warming.

Yet some of them were.

New polling shows that one in three Americans blamed unusual winter temperatures on Earth’s changing climate.

The survey, published by Gallup on Tuesday, indicates U.S. residents are becoming more likely to attribute unusual weather in their own backyards — including even that teeth-chattering cold this winter — to broader global changes in the planet’s climate because of human activity.

It also comes at a time when politicians in Washington seem to be talking more about federal action to stop climate change than they have in a decade, with many Democratic presidential contenders rallying around creating a Green New Deal.

“We talk a lot about people’s belief in global warming,” said Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup. “But this brings it down to a bit more of a personal experience.”

“This is kind of where the rubber meets the road,” she added.

Forty-three percent of Americans said temperatures were colder than usual this winter, according to Gallup. Of those respondents, 44 percent attributed the colder weather to climate change. Nearly 4 in 10, 37 percent, thought the same in 2015, and 29 percent did so in 2014.

Similarly, 70 percent of those Americans who reported higher-than-usual temperatures this year blamed those usually mild conditions on climate change. That’s up significantly from 2012, when 38 percent of such respondents saw global warming as responsible for the balmier conditions.

Of course, people’s prior beliefs about climate change seem to color their perceptions of how weird was the winter weather.

“Those who worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming are more likely to report experiencing warmer than usual winter weather than those worried only a little or not at all,” Saad said. “The finding is similar for the perception that winter is colder than usual.”

And human beings in general are much less reliable measurers of temperature than a regular-old mercury thermometer.

According to Gallup, Americans were more likely to say they went through a colder-than-average winter rather than a warmer-than-average one. But the reality is that the United States had above-average temperatures between December 2018 and February 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That discrepancy may be due to the timing of survey. It was conducted during the first 10 days of March, immediately after a February that clocked in 1.8 degrees below average. The Midwest was in the middle of that “polar vortex” freeze at the start of the month.

“February seems to be what people have in mind when they answer in March,” Saad said. She added that parts of December were so warm near her home in Connecticut that she sent her kids to school in shorts.

Gallup’s results are part of its annual report on Americans’ attitudes about climate change, which will be released in full next week.

Yet President Trump is pointing to the low thermometer reading as a sign that man-made climate change is not happening. In January, for example, he tweeted: “In the beautiful Midwest, wind chill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!”

Yet, as counterintuitive as it may sound, there is heated debate among climate scientists over whether those extreme cold snaps — such as the one that rolled through the United States in January — are due to rising temperatures in the Arctic.

The idea is that the lack of sea ice up north destabilizes the jet stream that encircles the Arctic, causing the river of air to dip farther to the south and deliver a punch of cold polar wind to low latitudes. As more Americans hear about that theory, still not fully accepted by all climate scientists, more may be associating the cold snaps with climate change.

Other recent polling show Americans increasingly noticing what they think are the effects of climate change around them following recent torrential hurricanes and massive wildfires — weather events scientists know with more certainty are made worse by warming temperatures.

According to a University of Chicago survey, for example, of the respondents that said they found the climate science more convincing  than they did five years ago, three-quarters of them acknowledged that recent hurricanes, floods, droughts and unusual heat influenced their views.

That effect can even be felt in GOP-leaning North Carolina. After two major hurricanes in the past three years brought devastating floods to the state, an Elon University poll last year found that 37 percent of Republicans there believe global warming is “very likely” to hurt North Carolina’s coastal communities over the next half-century — nearly triple the number of Republicans who said the same in 2017.

“I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense,” one Trump-supporting North Carolinian told The Post’s Tracy Jan last year. “But now I really do think it is happening.”