There is a new Zogby poll on public attitudes in the US towards global warming and the potential connection between severe weather events and climate change.
Unsurprisingly to us (but maybe not to others), most of the US public feel that global warming is happening (around 70%), and roughly the same amount of people report being more or much more convinced of this over the last two years.
More interestingly, the pollsters asked whether people believed that global warming was having an effect on intense hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and the like. Again, roughly 70% of people thought that global warming was having either some effect or a major effect on these weather extremes (note that the question was not phrased to ask whether any specific event was thought likely to have been caused by global warming (which was probably a good choice)).
This begs the question whether people’s experience of severe weather has convinced them that climate change is occuring. Televangelist Pat Robertson, for instance, said very recently that it was the latest heat wave that finally convinced him. I think this is likely to be true for most of the public who are not following the issue very carefully (which is most of them of course!). The most significant single event in this context was probably Katrina, regardless of how much climate change can or can’t be associated with Katrina the Hurricane (let alone Katrina the Disaster!).
I would guess that this is likely to be a very common way for public opinion to be formed across a whole number of issues. That is, when a dominant theme is very prevalent across a wide spectra of media, everyday occurrences or new information are often processed with that in mind, and given our extraordinary ability to see patterns in noisy data, we often end up associating the theme with our own experiences. Other examples surely abound in medical or political contexts.
Given that pattern, it is probably overly optimistic to expect scientists, who continually stress that single weather events can’t in general be attributed to climate change but that changes in statistics might be, to have much success in conveying these finer points to the public directly. Instead, their skills are probably best used in clarifying these points to those (e.g. journalists, policy-makers) that set the dominant themes in the first place.