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Extreme Weather and Politics Driving Divide on Climate Change

Niilo Isotalo /

A new survey finds that seventy percent of Americans think climate change is happening, and nearly sixty percent understand that it is largely human-caused. That puts us back approximately where we were ten years ago, before politics and economics eroded public acceptance of climate change.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, points to three factors that caused a precipitous drop in public acceptance of climate science in 2009 and 2010. Up until then, concern about the issue had been rising, among both politicians and the general public. Then came the economic downturn, the ClimateGate email hacking scandal, and the rise of the Tea Party.

Acceptance of climate science plummeted, especially among self-identified Conservatives. In the decade since then, understanding and concern about the issue has slowly crept back up, but the political divide has remained or grown.

“As critical as climate change is, it’s one of many national issues on which we are increasingly polarized,” Leiserowitz said.

This latest survey does suggest that a new player has entered the game - weather. The number of Americans who think that climate change will affect them or those they know, personally, is growing. Forty percent of Americans now think they’ve experienced the effects of climate change first-hand.

Leiserowitz attributes that increase to the highly visible increase in extreme weather, from hurricanes to droughts and wildfires. Still, he says politics remains the dominant factor when it comes to shaping public opinion on climate change.  


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“Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.