As extreme weather events increase, so does acceptance of climate science

A new survey finds that a majority of Americans believe that weather in the United States is getting worse, and they are linking it to global warming. 

Bonnie G. Vculek/Enid News & Eagle/AP
Brian Key salvages items from his mobile home at the Hideaway Mobile Home Villa Sunday in Woodward, Okla., after a severe thunderstorm spawned a massive tornado shortly after midnight Sunday. Key said he escaped harm by a split second as the funnel caused three deaths and destroyed 13 homes in the villa.

Severe droughts in Texas and the Great Plains. Hurricane Irene sweeping the Eastern Seaboard. Tornadoes in the Midwest, and floods in Mississippi. Record-breaking temperatures across the U.S. With such widespread madness, it's no surprise that the majority of Americans say they have personally experienced an extreme weather event or natural disaster in the past year.

That's according to a new nationally representative survey that also found a majority of Americans say U.S. weather is getting worse. Furthermore, a large majority of Americans think global warming made several high-profile weather events even worse.

The results, which are part of a long-term project at Yale, suggest global warming is becoming less of a "down the road" and "out of sight" issue and more of a "here and now" problem in the minds of Americans.

The researchers found early on in this project, a decade ago, that for many Americans climate change was a problem distant in time and space, "a problem about polar bears and Bangladesh, but not in my state, not in my community, not for the people and places I care about," said study researcher Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, referring to the public.

"What's interesting about these results is that it suggests Americans are beginning to internalize climate change, to bring it into the here and now," Leiserowitz told LiveScience. "The past two years have been filled with a seemingly endless succession of extreme weather events." [10 Surprising Results of Global Warming]

On the American mind

He and his colleagues were interested to find out what people had experienced in terms of this extreme weather, what kinds of related harm they had experienced and how they had interpreted their experiences regarding climate change.

So they conducted a survey of more than 1,000 Americans ages 18 and older between March 12 and March 30, 2012.

Their results showed that 72 percent of Americans believe global warming worsened the unusually warm winter of December 2011 and January 2012; 70 percent said it worsened the record high summer temperatures in the U.S. in 2011; the drought in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 (69 percent); record U.S. snowfall in 2010 and 2011 (61 percent); the Mississippi River floods in the spring of 2011 (63 percent); and Hurricane Irene (59 percent).

(While scientists can't tie climate change to any one weather event, they do have evidence that with global warming extreme events will become more common.)

Overall, 82 percent of Americans said they experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year, with those in the Northeast more likely to have experienced extreme high winds, rainstorms, cold temperatures, snowstorms, floods and hurricanes.

Midwesterners were more likely than others to have experienced extreme high winds, rainstorms, snowstorms and tornadoes. People in the South were more likely to report having experienced an extreme heat wave or drought, while Westerners were more likely to report experiencing wildfires. Not only that, but 35 percent said they were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these extreme weather events.

Who supports global warming?

So are more Americans now accepting scientifically backed man-made global warming? That depends on which Americans we are referring to. Leiserowitz has found that with regard to climate, there are six American publics, each with varying views, knowledge and interest in this issue. While the extreme views — the dismissive group who link conspiracy with climate change and the solid backers of the phenomenon — are staying put regardless of extreme weather, he said.

The groups in the middle are the people who pay attention to global warming but don't know much about it, using their personal experiences and what they see on national news to form an opinion. These personal and vicarious experiences of extreme weather start to accumulate in their minds. "That's what we think is starting to happen for people," Leiserowitz said. One natural disaster they might see as random; two, that's a coincidence; but three, and you're starting to see a pattern. [Quiz: Weather vs. Climate]

And these Americans aren't expecting the weather to get any better, it seems. Fifty-one percent believe the extreme weather will cause a natural disaster in their own community in the next year.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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