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Winter 2013 Freezes Growth of American Acceptance of Global Warming

People walk on a snow-covered street on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC

The fairly robust winter weather and chilly spring conditions over much of the United States seem to have stopped a period of growth in the number of Americans that think global warming is occurring.  According to the latest version of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment (NSEE) from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College the number of Americans who think there is solid evidence that temperatures on the planet are rising declined from 67% to 63% between the late fall of 2012 and April of 2013.   This 4 percent decline marked the largest drop in public acceptance of global warming since the Spring of 2011 when there was a 3 point decline from the fall of 2010. 

“From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperatures on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades.”

Fall 2008 Fall 2009 Spring 2010 Fall 2010 Spring 2011 Fall 2011 Spring 2012 Fall 2012 (early) Fall 2012 (late) Spring 2013
Yes 72% 65% 52% 58% 55% 62% 65% 68% 67% 63%
No 17% 20% 36% 26% 32% 26% 24% 21% 22% 22%
Not Sure 11% 15% 13% 16% 12% 12% 11% 11% 12% 15%

The slight decline in the number of Americans who think that global warming is taking place corresponds with fewer individuals pointing to their experiences with warm temperatures and mild winters as the key factor behind their position that global warming is happening. After the warm and relatively snowless winter of 2012 over 1 out of 3 Americans that thought global warming was happening indicated that mild winters in their area had a “very large” effect on their position regarding global warming.  But after the colder and snowier conditions of the winter of 2013 only about 1 in 5 Americans that think global warming is occurring said that milder winter conditions in their area had a “very large” effect on their views on this subject.

“Have milder winters in your area had a very large, somewhat large, not too large, or no effect on your view that the Earth is getting warmer?”

Fall 2008 Fall 2009 Spring 2010 Fall 2010 Spring 2011 Fall 2011 Spring 2012 Fall 2012 (early) Fall 2012 (late) Spring 2013
Very Large 36% N/A 19% 32% 17% 24% 35% 34% 34% 21%
Somewhat Large 31% N/A 38% 28% 25% 33% 33% 33% 36% 38%
Not Too Large 13% N/A 15% 17% 19% 25% 18% 17% 17% 28%
No Effect 18% N/A 26% 22% 37% 17% 14% 14% 12% 12%
Not Sure 3% N/A 2% <1% 1% 2% 1% 2% 1% 1%

Note-asked only of individuals that think there is solid evidence of global warming.

While there appears to be a relationship between this year’s winter weather conditions and the slight decline in the number of Americans that think global warming is occurring, it seems that weather is playing a bigger role in confirming the positions that Americans already hold regarding the existence of climate change rather than dramatically shifting their positions on this matter.

Over the last few years there have been modest shifts in the views of Americans regarding the existence of global warming but much more dramatic swings in their explanations for how they arrive at their positions.  In particular, during colder periods those Americans that think that there is evidence of global warming are less likely to cite their experiences with temperatures as the key factor for their position on the matter.  Further, the number of Americans who doubt the existence of global warming has changed very little in the past two years, but there has been substantial variation in the frequency of global warming skeptics citing their experiences with weather as the key factor for their doubts about climate change.

In the end the modest decline in public acceptance of global warming found in the most recent NSEE study ends a two-year stretch where a growing number of Americans expressed a belief that global warming is here.  During that period of growing public acceptance the issue of climate change reemerged on the policy agenda in Washington D.C..  It will now be interesting to see if the chilling effect that the winter of 2013 had on American acceptance of global warming will have a similar impact on the slowly emerging efforts of the Obama Administration to tackle climate change during it’s second term in office.

 

  • Barry Rabe examines American federalism, with particular focus on issues at the intersection of energy development and environmental protection. This has included a major emphasis on state and intergovernmental policy development in such areas as climate mitigation and shale gas development. His work also examines other federal systems such as Canada and explores the link between public opinion and public policy. He is also the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Professor of Public Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he directs the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP).

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