Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

Did El Niño do it...
or aerosol sprays?

Americans think that weather patterns have changed, even when they haven't. What's worse, we tend to blame ourselves for the changes we think are occurring.

In a six-year study of attitudes toward the environment, Willett Kempton, assistant professor of environmental policy, found that Americans don't need prodding to get upset about the climate; we already are. Real or imagined, Americans have been misperceiving the weather for hundreds of years, Kempton notes in his report, Environmental Values in American Culture:

"...During the American colonial period there was a widespread, publicly articulated belief that the climate had become warmer. ...One early published explanation attributed the warming to human alteration of the New World: Felling trees allowed temperate marine winds to penetrate from the east... and bared soil to receive and store solar heat."

More than 100 years later, a study quizzed locals in East St. Louis, Ill., as to whether or not they had noticed long-term changes in weather patterns in the area. Sixty-two percent said yes. The most commonly reported change was "less rain." In reality, over a 25-year period, precipitation, thunderstorms and hail had increased, but only 11 percent of those questioned said that.

Kempton says that, at any given historical moment, most of the population believes they have observed long-term change in the weather-with warmer winters and more variable and violent weather the most common observations.

Yet, while Americans do believe in long-term climate change, they don't tend to believe it's nature taking its course.

Ask Americans why the weather has changed, and they're more apt to blame space shots than El Niño.

The average person believes that human nature, rather than Mother Nature, is responsible for bizarre weather. Kempton writes, "...there is a propensity to blame weather changes...on certain types of human activity."

Among the human activities blamed for weather changes are World War I artillery fire, nuclear testing, space shots, agricultural spraying of insecticides and herbicides, the destruction of the rainforests, cloud seeding, aerosol cans and air pollution.

The perception that weather is more variable now than it used to be also could be the "good-ol'-days effect," Kempton writes.

-Barbara Garrison