A version of this article originally appeared on Climate Progress.
One of America’s top science officials says the current onslaught of extreme weather in the U.S. is raising awareness of climate change among Americans.
Speaking at a university forum today in Australia, Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Americans are increasingly connecting the dots between climate change and the severe heat, drought, wildfires, and storms hitting the country. The Associated Press reported on her comments, made at the University of Canberra:
“Many people around the world are beginning to appreciate that climate change is under way, that it’s having consequences that are playing out in real time and, in the United States at least, we are seeing more and more examples of extreme weather and extreme climate-related events,” Lubchenco told a university forum in the Australian capital of Canberra.
“People’s perceptions in the United States at least are in many cases beginning to change as they experience something first-hand that they at least think is directly attributable to climate change,” she said.
Lubchenco’s comments are backed up by actual research. According to a recent poll conducted by the National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change, an increase in extreme weather has increased Americans’ understanding of climate change — bringing public acceptance of the problem to the highest level since 2009.
This is the third statement on the link between climate change and extreme weather made by a high-level U.S. official in the last week. Speaking about the devastating Colorado wildfires on Monday, Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman told the Washington Post that “the climate is changing, and these fires are a very strong indicator of that.”
And while touring the damage from wildfires this week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano also warned about the influence of climate change on the intensity of fires: “You have to look at climate change over a period of years, not just one summer. You could always have one abnormal summer. But when you see one after another after another then you can see, yeah, there’s a pattern here.”
However, even while officials draw the connection to climate change — thus increasing the number of people who say it’s a problem — a poll released earlier this week by the Washington Post and Stanford University shows that the issue has fallen behind local air and water pollution as the most important environmental priority for Americans.
Why the change in priority? Because political leaders — particularly President Obama — are not talking about the issue enough in America. (Case in point: Lubchenco’s comments were made in Australia, not in the U.S. And it took a trip to Australia last November for Obama to make strong comments about climate change — and he’s said almost nothing about the problem directly to Americans since then.)
The Washington Post offered some interesting anecdotes on the administration’s messaging problem:
The findings, along with follow-up interviews with some respondents, indicate that Washington’s decision to shelve action on climate policy means that the issue has receded — even though many people link recent dramatic weather events to global warming. And they may help explain why elected officials feel little pressure to impose curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.
“I really don’t give it a thought,” said Wendy Stewart, a 46-year-old bookkeeper in New York. Although she thinks warmer winters and summers are signs of climate change, she has noticed that political leaders don’t bring up the subject. “I’ve never heard them speak on global warming,” she said. “I’ve never heard them elaborate on it.”
Michael Joseph, 20, a student at the Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, said he sees extreme weather-related events such as the Colorado wildfires and the derecho storm that struck Washington on Friday as “having something to do with climate change.” But, like Stewart, he added, “I don’t really hear about it that much.”
Even with this poor messaging, the Washington Post poll found three-quarters of Americans believe the Earth is warming and that governments must act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One wonders how dramatically demand for action would increase if high-level officials continued to be as blunt as climate scientists about the problem.