Climate Change & Extreme Weather

  • A mesocyclone tornado. More than two-thirds of Americans surveyed by researchers believe global warming made several recent extreme weather disasters worse. That's according to a new report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. (Photo courtesy of NOAA)

You’ve probably noticed we’ve had a strange spring.

This March – the warm temperatures broke 15,292 weather records across the country.   And last year… there were 14 weather-related disasters that each caused $1 billion – or more – in damages.

A new study finds a large majority of Americans are now connecting specific extreme weather events to climate change.

The study is part of a long-term project called Climate Change in the American Mind.  It’s by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Ed Maibach directs George Mason’s climate change center and he joins me now to talk more about this.  Professor Maibach, you found that 82 percent of Americans personally experienced one or more types of extreme weather or natural disaster in the past year.  How are these experiences affecting people’s understanding of climate change?

Ed Maibach: “We know that most Americans believe the climate is changing, and now, this latest survey shows us that a lot of people are connecting the experience of the extreme weather they’re experiencing to the fact that the climate is changing.”

RW: How many people do you think understand the difference between weather and climate?

Maibach: “Not too many. Weather and climate tend to be confused as being one and the same. Of course, climate is defined as the average weather over a long period of time, often 30 years. Weather is by its very nature variable, but climate change is making weather even more variable and even more extreme and people are clearly picking up on that.”

RW: What happens to Americans’ belief in climate change when there’s an unusually cold winter or record snowfalls?

Maibach: “So, extreme weather events that fall outside of our expectations of global warming such as particularly cold or snowy weather will tend to undermine our belief in climate change. Whereas those unusual or extreme weather events that fall within our expectations of what a changing climate should look like, such as a drought or an extreme heat event, heat wave, those will tend to support or reaffirm our belief that the climate is changing.”

RW: So how does the way that meteorologists and TV weathercasters present what’s going on affect people’s beliefs?

Maibach: “Most TV weathercasters don’t spend much time talking about climate change and its relation to the weather. Although we have surveyed America’s TV meteorologists twice over the past two years and we found that a lot of them would like to start educating their viewers about the difference between climate and weather and about the ways in which climate change is affecting their weather. It’s a difficult thing to do, in the short period of time that weathercasters have on the air each day, but I think you’re going to start seeing it more and more as we go forward.”

RW: What are you seeing happen with the political divisions around the subject of climate change over time?

Maibach: “Yeah, unfortunately, the political divisions seem to keep deepening.  And the real question is, what are we going to do to try to bring Americans of all political parties back together onto the same song sheet, so we can stop debating something that the scientists answered a long time ago, which is – is climate change real? – and we can start talking about what we want to do about it.  The most serious misperception about climate change in America today is the belief that there’s a lot of disagreement among the climate scientists about whether or not climate change is real and human caused. Virtually all climate experts are in agreement that it is both real and human caused. Yet only about one out of three, maybe as much as 40% of Americans understand that to be the case.  So America’s climate scientists have got to do a better job of conveying the fact that they have in fact reached consensus.”

RW: Ed Maibach directs George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.  Thank you for talking with me!

Maibach: “Thank you, Rebecca.”

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.