By Juliet Eilperin and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A10
This winter's extreme weather -- with heavy snowfall in some places and unusually low temperatures -- is in fact a sign of how climate change disrupts long-standing patterns, according to a new report by the National Wildlife Federation.
It comes at a time when, despite a wealth of scientific evidence, the American public is increasingly skeptical that climate change is happening at all. That disconnect is particularly important this year as the Obama administration and its allies in Congress seek to enact legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions and revamp the nation's energy supply.
"It's very hard for any of us to grasp how this larger warming trend is happening when we're still having wintry weather," said National Wildlife Federation climate scientist Amanda Staudt, the new report's lead writer.
The study charts how climate change is linked to more heavy precipitation, including intense snowstorms like the one that blanketed the D.C. area last month. The Great Lakes region is also experiencing more snow, the report says, because during warmer winters, "the lakes are less likely to freeze over or are freezing later [and] surface water evaporation is recharging the atmosphere with moisture."
Richard Somerville, who was a lead writer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report, said the public needs to grasp that it is important to reduce carbon dioxide quickly because it stays in the atmosphere for centuries.
"That's where the scientific urgency comes from, not a particular weather event," Somerville said. "There's a scientific case for rapidly reducing emissions."
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that 2009 tied as the second-warmest year on record, this week two new public opinion polls have confirmed a trend reported last fall: As Washington has focused more on climate change, the American public has come to believe in it less.
On Wednesday, Yale and George Mason universities released a survey showing that just 57 percent of people said global warming "is happening." That was down 14 percentage points, from 71 percent, in October 2008. Fifty percent of people said they were "very" or "somewhat" worried about global warming, down 13 points from 2008.
Edward Maibach, a George Mason professor, said two outside events may have played a role in the change: First came the recession; then Congress took up legislation to limit greenhouse gases, spurring industry groups and politicians to warn that tackling climate change would kick the economy while it was down.
"Global warming is not necessarily a conversation that most Americans want to actively participate in," Maibach said.
A poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press made a similar point: Respondents were asked to rank 21 issues in terms of their priority. Global warming came in last.
That was not a surprise, as it has been last before.
But this time it was worse than usual: Just 28 percent of respondents listed global warming as a top priority, down from 35 percent in 2008.