Spurred by warmer than usual temps, public concern over global warming rises just as some activists seek to ‘rebrand’ the issue.
If Theodor Geisel (AKA Dr. Suess) were around today, he might be prompted to write a book called, How global warming stole winter. Not that U.S. residents have been complaining about the recent record-breaking warm temperatures. Watch this local news clip from Chicago on March 14, when the thermometer reached 80 degrees. People are gushing over the summer-like weather.
It wasn’t just Chicago, of course. A huge swath of the nation simmered under bizarre heat. International Falls, Minnesota, the “icebox of the nation,” broke its old temperature records — by twenty-two degrees, which according to weather historians may be the largest margin ever for any station with a century’s worth of records. Winner, South Dakota, reached 94 degrees on the second-to-last day of winter. That’s in the Dakotas, two days before the close of winter.
Episodes like this are problematic for climate communicators and journalists. Stories of record-shattering weather require the obligatory caveat that one scorching week, or even one unusually mild winter (as much of the U.S. has just experienced) does not constitute a pattern. Nonetheless, McKibben, in his article, asserts: “This is what climate change looks like, just like last year’s new record for multibillion-dollar weather disasters is what climate change looks like.”
At the same time, he also acknowledges the double-edged sword of warm winter temperatures. Even those already apprehensive about climate change are likely struggling with some ambivalence, McKibben points out:
Most people caught in the torrid zones probably reacted pretty much like President Obama: “It gets you a little nervous about what is happening to global temperatures,” he told the audience assembled at a fundraiser at Tyler Perry’s Atlanta mansion (records were falling in Georgia too). “On the other hand I have really enjoyed the nice weather.”
Still, if you’re on the front lines of the climate campaign, you’re also looking for ways to move the needle on public concern. That means you probably welcomed the results of a recent national survey which found that, after several years of declining belief in climate change, “More Americans than ever are pointing to experiences with warmer temperatures as the main reason that they believe global warming is occurring.” And that poll was conducted in December of 2011, before the winter that never was pretty much had ended with a heat wave in what are normally some of the most frigid parts of the U.S.
As the Los Angeles Times notes in its report on the survey, “the nasty winters of 2009 and 2010 “seemed to indicate to a lot of people — rightly or wrongly — that they weren’t feeling any increase of temperatures. That helped drive down belief in climate change. But 2011 was a super-hot year, bad drought, with record-breaking precipitation in the Northeast, lots of weird weather. Public opinion? Must be climate change.”
In truth, as the LA Times story observes, “This shows how fickle public opinion can be.”
Ironically, this latest swing in the pendulum of public attitudes comes just as Beltway activists, according to Politico, seek to turn the focus away from climate change to “kitchen table issues.” The article discusses upcoming ad campaigns by environmental groups that will emphasize economic and public health concerns. Politico notes: “So melting glaciers are giving way to smog-induced asthma. And fuel-efficiency is now a matter of pump prices, not pollutants.”
All this goes to show: If there’s one constant in the climate sphere, it’s the lurching nature of public opinion on climate change, and the lurching campaigns of those who try to lasso the fickle public on to their side.