Climate change is a clear and present threat to our current way of life. Talk to almost any climate scientists and they will tell you that climate change is not only real, but is caused by humans, and that the impacts are already being felt. However, when you talk to regular Americans, you do not get that sense. Many believe climate change, if it is real at all, is a problem for tomorrow and probably won’t be that bad anyway. This difference represents the challenge of talking about complicated and nuanced issues with no clear or immediate solutions. This challenge is only heightened when a lower-salience issue like the environment is contextualized against “real life,” where people are consumed with day-to-day concerns and lack the mental or emotional resources to imagine how to deal with such a big problem.
Historically, poll data typically falls short of showing that a majority of the public either believe in the effects of climate change or that they are willing to make changes to their personal lives as part of an effort to impact the environment in positive ways. However, new data from Ipsos suggests that Americans do appear to be recognizing the impacts of climate change. In April 2017, Ipsos conducted a study with 1,009 American on the topic of severe weather events (LINK). While on an aggregate level we do not find a majority reporting an increase in severe weather, a different pattern emerges when the data is examined at a regional level.
The survey asked people about their perceptions of specific types of severe weather, including tropical storms, blizzards, hurricanes, droughts and more. When that data is analyzed at a regional level, we see a clear trend and increasing significance:
These graphs suggest varied potential impacts of climate change across the United States. In the West, for example, a majority of the public believe that droughts have increased in severity and frequency. In the Northeast, tropical storms are noted to have become more frequent. Southerners remark on the increased intensity of thunderstorms while Midwesterners note the increased frequency and intensity of floods.
Among Americans who believe that some type of weather has gotten more intense or frequent, fully 60 percent believe that climate change is real and mostly caused by human activity. Among those who do not see any major changes in their local weather, that figure drops to only about 30percent.
This data suggest that climate change advocates may consider customizing their messages and approach in ways that include reference to the prevalent weather patterns of the area. Tapping into events that Americans already feel are happening to them at a local level may make communications on this subject “stickier” and more relevant.