This winter, temperatures plunged so low in the Midwest — at times below minus-50 degrees — that mail service stalled, airline gas lines froze and Chicago set parts of its commuter rail on fire to stop the bone-deep chill from damaging the tracks.
Few would blame those gripped by the cold for not thinking very much about global warming.
Yet some of them were.
New polling shows that one in three Americans blamed unusual winter temperatures on Earth's changing climate.
The survey, published by Gallup on Tuesday, indicates U.S. residents are becoming more likely to attribute unusual weather in their own backyards — including even that teeth-chattering cold this winter — to broader global changes in the planet's climate because of human activity.
It also comes at a time when politicians in Washington seem to be talking more about federal action to stop climate change than they have in a decade, with many Democratic presidential contenders rallying around creating a Green New Deal.
“We talk a lot about people's belief in global warming,” said Lydia Saad, a senior editor at Gallup. “But this brings it down to a bit more of a personal experience.”
“This is kind of where the rubber meets the road,” she added.
Forty-three percent of Americans said temperatures were colder than usual this winter, according to Gallup. Of those respondents, 44 percent attributed the colder weather to climate change. Nearly 4 in 10, 37 percent, thought the same in 2015, and 29 percent did so in 2014.
Similarly, 70 percent of those Americans who reported higher-than-usual temperatures this year blamed those usually mild conditions on climate change. That's up significantly from 2012, when 38 percent of such respondents saw global warming as responsible for the balmier conditions.
Of course, people's prior beliefs about climate change seem to color their perceptions of how weird was the winter weather.
"Those who worry a great deal or fair amount about global warming are more likely to report experiencing warmer than usual winter weather than those worried only a little or not at all," Saad said. "The finding is similar for the perception that winter is colder than usual."
And human beings in general are much less reliable measurers of temperature than a regular-old mercury thermometer.
According to Gallup, Americans were more likely to say they went through a colder-than-average winter rather than a warmer-than-average one. But the reality is that the United States had above-average temperatures between December 2018 and February 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That discrepancy may be due to the timing of survey. It was conducted during the first 10 days of March, immediately after a February that clocked in 1.8 degrees below average. The Midwest was in the middle of that “polar vortex” freeze at the start of the month.
“February seems to be what people have in mind when they answer in March," Saad said. She added that parts of December were so warm near her home in Connecticut that she sent her kids to school in shorts.
Gallup's results are part of its annual report on Americans' attitudes about climate change, which will be released in full next week.
Yet President Trump is pointing to the low thermometer reading as a sign that man-made climate change is not happening. In January, for example, he tweeted: “In the beautiful Midwest, wind chill temperatures are reaching minus 60 degrees, the coldest ever recorded. In coming days, expected to get even colder. People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!”
Yet, as counterintuitive as it may sound, there is heated debate among climate scientists over whether those extreme cold snaps — such as the one that rolled through the United States in January — are due to rising temperatures in the Arctic.
The idea is that the lack of sea ice up north destabilizes the jet stream that encircles the Arctic, causing the river of air to dip farther to the south and deliver a punch of cold polar wind to low latitudes. As more Americans hear about that theory, still not fully accepted by all climate scientists, more may be associating the cold snaps with climate change.
Other recent polling show Americans increasingly noticing what they think are the effects of climate change around them following recent torrential hurricanes and massive wildfires — weather events scientists know with more certainty are made worse by warming temperatures.
According to a University of Chicago survey, for example, of the respondents that said they found the climate science more convincing than they did five years ago, three-quarters of them acknowledged that recent hurricanes, floods, droughts and unusual heat influenced their views.
That effect can even be felt in GOP-leaning North Carolina. After two major hurricanes in the past three years brought devastating floods to the state, an Elon University poll last year found that 37 percent of Republicans there believe global warming is “very likely” to hurt North Carolina's coastal communities over the next half-century — nearly triple the number of Republicans who said the same in 2017.
“I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense,” one Trump-supporting North Carolinian told The Post's Tracy Jan last year. “But now I really do think it is happening.”
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The head of the @EPA is expected to announce today that he believes water safety is a bigger environmental crisis than climate change. @MajorCBS sat down with EPA administrator @EPAAWheeler in his first TV interview since being confirmed: https://t.co/zg0NIiLQOB pic.twitter.com/4Rq3iLy5ma— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) March 20, 2019
— Trump's EPA chief defines "the biggest environmental threat we have": And it's not climate change. Recently confirmed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler told CBS News that “drinking water today worldwide is probably the biggest environmental threat we have" and is “a crisis that I think we can solve.” He told the network the climate change is “an important change we have to be addressing and we are addressing,” but said “most of the threats from climate change are 50-75 years out.” “What we need to do is make sure that the people who are dying today from the lack of having drinking water in third world countries – that problem is addressed,” he added.
— What Trump’s budget does to science: More details have been made public about how Trump’s budget request could impact the National Science Foundation, the agency that provides a quarter of all federal funding for basic research, The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. The 12 percent reduction would mean 1,000 fewer grants in 2020, and 400 fewer graduate students than its fellowship program funded last year. The budget proposal would cut research funding in 2020 for the biological sciences, computer sciences, engineering and social sciences by a tenth compared with 2019 levels. Geosciences, mathematical and physical sciences funding would be cut by 15 percent, and polar programs by almost 20 percent. But there are some proposed increases, such as for artificial intelligence research as well as for funding for advanced manufacturing, semiconductors and microelectronics.
Some GOP lawmakers have pushed back on proposed energy and environmental cuts: “[White House officials] make some proposals in there that they know we’re not going to go along with,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), the ranking Republican of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, according to Bloomberg Environment. “Elections have consequences, and the bills we write are going to be more in the Democratic mold,” he added.
— FERC nominee derailed: Energy Secretary Rick Perry and major coal companies worked to convince the president not to nominate a prominent lawyer for a spot on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission because he had been publicly critical of the administration’s proposal to help struggling coal power plants. David Hill, who served as general counsel for the Energy Department in the George W. Bush administration was a likely candidate for the post, Politico reported, but he said his nomination process has ended. “He had been expected to fill the vacancy created by former FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre's death in January,” according to Politico. “But the parallel efforts by Perry and the coal industry proved to be more persuasive with Trump than his chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, who was lobbying for Hill.”
— Oregon lawmakers pass fracking ban: The state’s House of Representatives voted 42 to 12 to pass a 10-year ban on the process in the state, a measure that will now head to the state Senate for consideration. While there’s no existing fracking operations in the state, “developers say there's potential for coalbed methane extraction in the Willamette Valley, which this bill would also block,” the Associated Press reports.
— Much of the Midwest has been ravaged by floodwaters: The massive late-winter storm that battered much of the Midwest has left widespread destruction in the region and has killed at least four people. Vice President Pence, who visited Nebraska to survey the storm-ravaged region, vowed presidential disaster declarations would be expedited to help impacted states.
Still, some areas are preparing for more impending destruction. “While floodwaters remain steady in some areas and recede in others, some regions are bracing for ‘major to historic and catastrophic’ flooding to come as rivers vault toward their crests this week, fed by rapid snowmelt throughout the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, the National Weather Service said,” The Post’s Alex Horton reports.
The flooding is hitting Nebraska's farms particularly hard: Early estimates show ranching losses in Nebraska will hit $500 million and row-crop losses at another $400 million. “For livestock, the loss is a combination of animal deaths and loss of productivity (when it’s cold, cattle and calves don’t grow as fast) as well as loss of quality feed sources,” The Post’s Laura Reiley reports. “For row crops, [Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson] explained, farmers are very close to planting season, and fear they won’t have enough time to clean up the land.” “I’m 39 years old; I don’t have children. The cows are my children, and my farm is completely destroyed. Maybe it’s a sign from God to go and do something else,” fifth-generation Nebraska rancher Anthony Ruzicka told The Post.
— Notorious fish that caught fire now safe to eat: The Environmental Protection Agency gave the green light to ease consumption restrictions on a fish from the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, infamous for catching fire in Cleveland in 1969 because of water pollution. “This is an example of the progress that can be achieved when you collaborate and dedicate resources to improving the quality of water in our state,” Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said in a statement. “The Cuyahoga River was already one of the most polluted rivers in the country at the time of the fire on June 22, 1969 . . . The fire was neither the first nor the worst the river had experienced,” the Associated Press reports. “But the 1969 fire on the river, where industrial waste and sewage were regularly dumped, drew national media attention that made it an instant poster child for water pollution at a time when the country was becoming more environmentally aware.”
— More river news, Potomac edition: The Potomac Riverkeeper Network announced it will start monitoring water quality at six different points along the river to provide public data that and help people decide whether it’s safe enough to swim, The Post’s Marissa J. Lang reports. The information will be uploaded to a website and app, Swim Guide, that tracks weather and water quality at 7,000 beaches worldwide. “In the District, the Department of Health bars swimming in the river,” Lang writes. “It’s not outlawed in Virginia or Maryland. But, as Potomac riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said, no one knows what the river quality is day-to-day or even week-to-week.”
— The petrochemical plant blaze in Texas is out: A fire that broke out on Sunday at a petrochemical storage site near Houston has been extinguished, CBS Newsreports. Intercontinental Terminals Company has been monitoring air quality at its facility and said readings are “well below hazardous levels.” The head of the county’s health department said Tuesday there “continues to be a low risk to our community.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on geopolitics, energy security and the U.S.-Japan alliance.
- The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.
— The flooding from above: The Post graphics team on the satellite images showing the catastrophic flooding in the Midwest.