Wednesday, October 17th 2012, 6:28 AM EDT
Yale and George Mason University recently released a poll detailing public perception of weather and climate change. Judging from the results, it can only be concluded that Americans watch too much TV, and have no problem being tricked by trick questions.
The survey is long, cumbersome, and sometimes asks things guaranteed to get answers full of sound and fury with little significance, i.e., the trick ones.
How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements [sic]:
“Global warming is affecting weather in the United States?” (strongly agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree, don’t know/no answer).
The correct answer has to be a completely meaningless “strongly agree”, but the public—perhaps sensing the irrelevance of the question, generally toned it down to “somewhat”.
Why is this a certainty, and why is it irrelevant?
Greenhouse gases alter the flow of radiation in the atmosphere, resulting (generally) in a slightly warmer surface and slightly cooler temperatures far aloft. Such a change must affect the weather, in the same way that pouring a glass of water into a small pond must affect the pond. You can’t escape that.
But is this at all relevant? The fine folks at the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) have this thingy called the “Climate Extremes Index” (CEI), which counts really hot days, big storms (rain and snow), tornadoes, etc…It does not include tropical cyclones (hurricanes and tropical storms) because there are other pretty good metrics to gauge their severity. (Hint: global hurricane power is near its lowest ebb, and the U.S. hasn’t seen a major hurricane hit for the longest period in at least 150 years). Here is the CEI:
NCDC’s Climate Extremes Index shows that we have pretty much returned to the level of extreme events we experienced early in the last century, before we emitted many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The Yale/GMU survey then goes on to demonstrate our national scientific illiteracy.
Some people say that global warming made each of the following events worse. How much do you agree or disagree?(strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree, strongly agree).
•The current drought in the Midwest and Great Plains?
That one is best tested by actually looking at the numbers, to examine the relationship between global temperature and U.S. drought. The correlation is zero. Please look here for the gory details.
71% of the public somewhat or strongly agree. Well, since they can’t be expected to actually run the numbers, they have to be gaining their perception from something other than reality. People watch too much TV.
•The severe storm (known as a “derecho”) that knocked down trees and power lines from Indiana to Washington DC in June of 2012?
This time, 64% of the respondents somewhat or strongly agree.
Yet another case for a bit of research. Derechos are thunderstorms with damaging straight-line winds, as opposed to tornadoes, which are thunderstorms with a strong rotational component. They’re different expressions of the same phenomenon, i.e. strong thunderstorms. So, examining tornado data yields the answer to this question.
This has been done so many times by so many people that I am ashamed to manfully rap this dead equine. Yeah, new Doppler radar sees more tornadoes than before, but you don’t need a radar to know when there’s been a category 3 or higher twister. Depending upon how loose you want to be with your statistics, the frequency is either staying the same (conservative stats) or actually in decline (loosey-goosey stats).
The perception of increasing wind storm severity may have to do with The Weather Channel’s endless variations of the “my cat Missy almost blew away when a cold front came through” story (queue the Da-dum, Da-dum, Dad um music). People watch too much TV.
The list goes on through forest fires, high temperatures, this year’s pleasant spring and (horrors!) mild winter. In some of these cases, there is a scientific case—particularly during the cold seasons—that this is where the human warming signal should first escape from year-to-year climate noise, but the CEI shows that this hasn’t happened—yet.
The survey then goes on to ask quite a few other questions. A most telling disconnect is between the public’s perception of droughts and reality. Pretty much around the country, people say they are becoming more common.
Here’s the reality, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:
Percent of the U.S. wet or dry. Anyone who sees global-warming related trends here probably thinks Congress will produce a balanced budget.
There’s simply no overall trend. Divided geographically, drought has become recently more frequent in the Southwest while the Northeast has become wetter. None of this shows up in the Yale/GMU survey data.
People perceive increased drought because this is a big country and usually about one-sixth of it is experiencing some level of drought, making it easy for a camera to find a shriveled cornfield every summer. People watch too much TV.
It would have been nice if the Yale/GMU survey would have asked folks how much money they would spend to stop all these misperceived horrors, but Stanford has beaten them to that punch. The answer is–not very much.
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