Frigid Digits

Why We’re Polarized on Climate Change Despite the Polar Vortex

More Americans believe in climate change, but don’t expect the numbers to jump as temperatures drop.

Polar vortex won’t change most minds on climate change.

The Arctic air that descended across the United States this week is more than a miserable cold snap; it is a political Rorschach test, with bitter cold fueling commentary on both sides of the climate change debate.

For some, any oddball weather event is obviously happening only because we’ve broken our planet and should brace for doom. For others, the record-low cold of the week undercuts the “inconvenient truth” of long-term global warming.

And for many meteorologists, the insanely unpleasant freak bout of cold weather is just that, or—put more succinctly—“a random event.” As Jason Samenow of the famed Capital Weather Gang put it, “it happened before humans dumped billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and will happen again.”

But no matter: nowadays, any wacky weather pattern or genuinely horrible natural disaster is a flashpoint for yet another round of the great climate change feud in political punditry.

The climate debate tends to pop up when things get weird—or tragic; take, for instance, the devastating and record-breaking tornado season of 2011, where nearly 900 tornadoes swept across the U.S. including over 80 that were classified as “strong” to “violent” (or F3+ for those of you who are meteorologists, or who saw Twister.) Even though government scientists at the time said, “so far, we have not been able to link any of the major causes of the tornado outbreak to global warming,” that didn’t stop many in the media from doing just that. A year later, in 2012, the number of reported tornadoes reverted back toward the mean, and last summer, Al Gore voiced his frustration that scientists “won’t let us” use tornadoes to further the climate change cause.

So given that context for the battle over climate, does the public seem to care any more about climate change these days? While growing numbers of Americans believe that climate change is happening, dealing with it remains among the lowest priorities to voters.

Pew Research Center found in 2013 that “dealing with global warming ranks at the bottom of the public’s priority list,” with only 28 percent saying it should be a top priority—down from 38 percent who said the same in 2007.

In fact, only 38 percent of Democrats concurred that dealing with global warming should be a top priority, far below things like strengthening gun laws (69 percent) or helping the poor and needy (71 percent). President Obama’s election didn’t exactly slow “the rise of the oceans,” and despite the rhetoric, even most Democrats don’t seem to be terribly concerned, especially compared to other pressing issues.

On the other hand, increasing numbers of Americans believe climate change is backed by valid evidence. Furthermore, Republicans are far less monolithic on the climate issue than the traditional narrative suggests, and in the last couple of years have become more—not less—persuaded that climate change is happening.

Counter to the conventional wisdom, Republicans are evenly split on whether or not there is solid evidence the earth is warming, a divide that cuts similarly to the Tea Party/non-Tea Party divide. Even more interestingly, as the Republican electorate in the last few years has grown more open to the idea that climate change is occurring (up from just 35 percent in 2009). The official GOP platform and prominent voices on the right have gone the other way. (Exhibit A: Sarah Palin, who in 2008 acknowledged a “changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state,” but who shortly thereafter became outspoken about her doubts about global climate change science.

So does the recent focus on peculiar weather make a difference either way? The evidence is mixed. A HuffPost/YouGov poll from November showed 55 percent of Americans saying they think changes in the global climate are related to more frequent and severe natural disasters, though only 28 percent said they thought Typhoon Haiyan was a result of climate change. Last year, Quinnipiac found a majority of voters across the country disagreed with those linking a particular event, Superstorm Sandy, to climate change. It seems most think climate change could result in an overall long-term trend toward weather weirdness, but are more hesitant to link it to any one specific extreme weather event.

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In the last four years, skeptics have been losing the battle of public opinion over the existence of climate change—even among Republicans. On the other hand, those calling for climate change to be at the forefront of the national agenda are a minority—even among Democrats. It seems that for most, climate change is happening, but there’s not much to be done about it, and this week’s deep freeze is unlikely to move opinion either way.