Americans Connecting Extreme Weather to Climate Change

A new poll showing that an increasing number of Americans are linking the extreme weather events—including the extremely warm, droughts, and hurricanes—to climate change. Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute , is asked why he thinks this shift is happening. Are  policy changes on the horizon? Acting on its commitment to increase national awareness of economic and environmental sustainability, the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce launched of 100 Cities for Change on Earth Day. Read More

By Allison T. McCann in Popular Mechanics (19 April 2012):

The New York Times covered a new poll showing that an increasing number of Americans are linking the extreme weather events of the past few years—including the extremely warm March 2012, droughts, and hurricanes—to climate change.

We asked Gavin Schmidt, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute and a member of PM’s Editorial Board of Advisers, why he thinks this shift is happening, and if it means that policy changes could be on the horizon.

Q. What’s your first reaction to these polling numbers?

A. I am not really surprised. Most people don’t have a very sophisticated grasp of what climate change is, which is completely understandable. But people do have a visceral connection to weather; they talk about it, understand it, and they’re very fond of extremes in weather (in a conversational way.)

Q. What’s it like to see these recent extreme events as a climate scientist? You look at the long term, but it’s these short- and medium-term events that seem to be swaying the public.

A. The psychology is that people know climate change is out there, and they’re trying to make it real to them. So you have a situation where there’s all this talk about climate change, and then seemingly weird things happen like a huge heat wave or a big snow dump, and I think people just naturally associate these things. They want to be able to see something that they can point to and say, “Ah, that’s what these people are talking about.” We experience weather all the time. It’s harder to have a good grasp of what climate is.

Q. Do you agree with the researchers’ “close to home” idea—that is, these extreme events are making climate change and its effects more real for Americans, who previously viewed it as something off in the future or something for other countries to worry about?

A. Yes, this is a very normal psychological thing that we do — we see things and then we associate them. So when there’s a weird heat wave, like we had here in March, people will naturally gravitate toward thinking that’s what climate change looks like. It’s not that anybody’s telling them that, but these things just become associated.

People can tell us general things, but we always look for specific things to make them more concrete. People are not being told the wrong thing; they’re just trying to make connections between the general and the specific.

Q. The last few years have certainly felt strange, in an anecdotal sense. But is it possible to quantify how strange it’s actually been to have all these things together—warmest March ever, so many early tornadoes, droughts, etc.?

A. We often talk about extreme weather events like they’re all one thing—that they’re all increasing or decreasing. But the physics of why you get a tornado or a drought or a hurricane are completely different, and the idea that they all are touched by climate change equally is very wrong.

We’ve done more work in the last 10 years on how climate change gets expressed in weather extremes—as seen in the number of heat waves that are clearly increasing in number and intensity all over the world—and we expect this as we shift the mean toward warmer conditions. But when people talk about ice storms or a single hurricane—there the connection to climate change is much more tenuous. A lot of times the science hasn’t been done on any specific extreme, and because they’re all unique, we need to have more serious data.

Q. Do you think the public’s misunderstanding of weather versus climate is a good or bad thing?

A. Obviously as a scientist, you want the public to know as much as you do, but I think realistically that’s impossible. So . . . it’s not, “Oh my God, people are confused.” It’s more about, “Does this provide an opening? Does this provide a way to talk about the science and have people get a better understanding of what’s going on?”

And I think the answer is yes. These poll results provide an opportunity to talk about how climate science is related to weather extremes and where we’re going and where the difficulty is—this notion of science as a process. There are good things here, because whether or not people are convinced or agree or disagree on climate change, it opens up a space for communication.

Q. There’s an interesting note in the Times story that public acceptance of climate change hit a high point just before the recession, then waned, but now is on the rise again. How big of a factor do you think the economy is in the public’s acceptance of climate change and particularly in moving climate policy forward?

A. The question presumes that climate policy is predicated on the idea that individual people have to make individual sacrifices for climate change, which is not the case at all. The best climate policy is one that nobody notices. If we have to rely on everybody to think about every action they make, it will never happen, so any climate policy has to address the problem without having people think about it.

Q. Do you think more weird weather events in the U.S. will continue to increase public acceptance of human-induced climate change?

A. Probably, yes. If you look at some of the previous polling, the other big spike when people felt climate change was happening was in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And it wasn’t because scientists were telling them that Katrina was caused by climate change—it was just an obvious demonstration that we are vulnerable to weather events and therefore to climate change.


The U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce challenges companies, cities and individuals to take a stand for sustainable business

From the US Green Chamber of Commerce San Diego, California (18 April 2012):

Acting on its commitment to increase national awareness of economic and environmental sustainability, the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce launched of 100 Cities for Change on Earth Day, April 22nd. This campaign marks the organization’s first national push for individuals, businesses and cities to come together and pledge their support for socially responsible business.

“100 Cities for Change is not just about saying you or your business is ‘green.’ We know that word has started to lose meaning for people over time. We are looking for a complete paradigm shift,” said David Steel, chief executive officer for the USGCC. “This is about provoking and inspiring people to utilize sustainable business practices and revitalize the goal of a triple bottom line – people, planet and profit.”

By pledging to join 100 Cities for Change, people across the nation will be taking part in a grassroots movement of thousands of businesses and countless individuals who are racing to prove change is necessary now and that sustainability can and will boost the bottom line.

The USGCC is also premiering its third party certification program designed to teach organizations best practices for sustainable business while helping to attract eco-conscious consumers. The certification program, which will launch in May, provides:

•             Initiatives developed by outside regulatory entities including trade related organizations and    the EPA.

•             Step-by-step plans to achieve sustainable goals and business practices

•             A trusted certification seal to protect against claims of “green washing”

•             Consumer transparency – QR code technology is provided, allowing consumers to scan the code on a business’ storefront or website and instantly see its progress toward green and sustainability initiatives.

“The USGCC’s long-standing belief is that the triple bottom line is not only important, but it works together seamlessly to support the business environment and societal goals,” said Steel. “Whether your business is looking to improve efficiencies, implement eco-friendly practices or tap into emerging markets, our goal is to be a resource and a facilitator of change. Empowerment is crucial to generate innovation, job creation, and a brighter economic future.”

Individuals can join the movement by “liking” the U.S. Green Chamber’s Facebook page and becoming a member on the U.S. Green Chamber website.

“Cities for Change” memberships are available for $99 which include over $2,000 of benefits including green certification, inclusion in the national business directory, a website proud member logo, a USGCC trust seal, access to a national mentor program through SCORE, media blast announcements, a press release template and more.

About the U.S. Green Chamber:

The U.S. Green Chamber is a nonprofit organization that empowers businesses to grow through environmentally friendly, sustainable practices that positively impact our economy and ecology. It helps both established and emerging companies improve operational efficiencies, tap into unexplored markets and explore new opportunities in the green sector. By providing visibility, advocacy, networking opportunities and educational tools, the U.S. Green Chamber brings businesses, government, nonprofits and individuals together to strengthen their success and work towards environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.


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