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Public Opinion on Hurricanes and Global Warming

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMarch 13, 2007 10:42 PM


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Via Matt Nisbet, I see that Gallup has asked a pretty careful polling question to determine what the public thinks about the hurricane-climate relationship. As I detail in Storm World, some past polls on this question were so poorly worded that few conclusions could be drawn from them. Now Gallup has done a better job (although hardly a perfect one, as we'll see) and the results are very interesting:

* 5 % of Americans think global warming-induced hurricane intensification has already happened. My hunch is that that's actually a much smaller percentage than the proportion of experts who think this, at least for the Atlantic. See for example Holland and Webster (PDF): "It is concluded that the overall trend in SSTs and tropical cyclone and hurricane numbers is substantially influenced by greenhouse warming...While there is no trend in the proportion of major hurricanes, the increasing cyclone numbers has lead to a distinct trend in the number of major hurricanes and one that is clearly associated with greenhouse warming." * 44 percent of Americans think hurricanes will become more powerful in the next ten years--the greatest percentage for any of the options in the poll. That's a bit odd, in that the two rival scientific positions at the moment are either 1) they've already intensified and 2) they will intensify but not enough for it to be detectable for decades. (Needless to say, those who think they've already intensified surely also think they will continue to do so over the next decade.) * 22 % of Americans think hurricanes will become more powerful within the next 50 years. This is getting pretty close to the Knutson-Tuleya 2004 position (PDF): "CO2-induced tropical cyclone intensity changes are unlikely to be detectable in historical observations and will probably not be detectable for decades to come." * 10 % think hurricanes will become more powerful within the next 100 years. Definitely consistent with Knutson and Tuleya as well as with Chris Landsea & co-authors (PDF), although these two scientific groups would presumably differ on the magnitude of the intensification. Landsea et al write: "modeling and theoretical studies suggest only small anthropogenic changes to tropical cyclone intensity several decades into the future [an increase on the order of ~5% near the end of the 21st century]." * 13 % think global-warming induced hurricane intensification will never happen. Um, how are the so sure? In any event, this position contradicts the findings of both the latest IPCC report (PDF; "it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense") and the WMO's latest statement (PDF; "It is likely that some increase in tropical cyclone peak wind-speed and rainfall will occur if the climate continues to warm"). * 1 % have no opinion. Um, only 1 %?

I'm a bit skeptical about how many people stampeded toward the second option in this poll--perhaps they felt it was the "moderate" position. In any event, Nisbet highlights what may be the most interesting finding of all: "According to the survey, 83% of Democrats worry that hurricanes will become more powerful due to global warming compared to only 49% of Republicans." Wait a sec...didn't Al Gore say at the Oscars that this wasn't a Democrat/Republican issue?

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