The Trouble with Environmental Surveys

There is a survey floating around today saying that people around the world are united in their belief that global warming is a serious cause and worth fighting. I’m not going to argue that one either way — although it is interesting that Australia, China, and Israel lead the world in worriedness, which buttresses my longstanding view that China represents the solution to global environmental worries — but I want to point out something else.

It is this: People have no idea a) how variable the weather is, and b) what the usual weather is where they live. Think anyone has a clue what the standard deviation is of daily/weekly/monthly rainfall in their home city? You can bet they don’t, so how do they, assuming a quasi-normal distribution, have any idea what constitutes unusual weather on a day-to-day basis? (And you could say the same thing about temperatures).

Bottom line, climate is a dynamic system, and asking people to find anomalies based on their day-to-day (and even year-to-year) experience is akin to looking for patterns in daily trading in the stock market. It’s a waste of time, one that tells you more about what they read in the morning paper than anything meaningful.


  1. Paul you may be forgetting the visible and quantifiable impacts of global warming. Take those persons displaced by Hurricane Katrina – when they get told the the severity and intensity of such storms is increasing due to global warming, that singular event is enough to create shock waves.
    Likewise, many people rally around global warming due to the visible shift in migration patterns of certain species forced to abandon traditional habitats.
    So, while it is easy to label global warming advocates as those pesky neighbors who complain that it’s “unseasonably mild” there is a larger portion of people who look at the visual impacts.

  2. I’m fine with that, but I still believe most people responding to these surveys are paying zero attention to species migration, albedo shifts, glacial meltwater, etc. They are simply filtering news stories into their recollection of normal weather, and then generating a convenient and precarious conclusion.
    Why precarious? Because as I said to Tim “Weather Makers” Flannery on a panel I moderated last week, the greatest risk for enviro sorts isn’t that they’re wrong. It’s that they’re right and that we get a few years of “normal” weather and lower oil prices in North America, Europe, and Asutralia. This topic would then, wrongly, fall right off the agenda.