Climate, Weather, and Public Opinion

There’s a Kenneth Chang article in the New York Times this morning on the ever popular topic of “If the globe is warming, why is it so darn cold?” It’s a good explanation of the weather phenomenon that’s making the morning dog walk at Chateau Steelypips so unpleasant.

This reminded me of something I’ve wondered about the public perception of climate change. There was a good deal of hand-wringing on blogs over some recent polls showing depressingly low numbers of Americans believing in global warming (see this one, for example). This was mostly attributed to the successes of the right-wing noise machine, but I wonder how much this is influenced by the fact that it wasn’t a terribly warm summer in my part of the US. It’s really hard to distinguish weather from climate– see all the fuss about the number and strength of hurricanes– and I could easily believe that an unexceptional summer might lead a significant number of people to be less concerned about global warming, while a hotter than normal summer would lead to increased concern.

This seems so obvious, though, that somebody else has probably looked at it. So, has anybody done any studies to see if public opinions on climate change are correlated with local weather? That is, do the poll numbers increase when you have a particularly hot summer, or decrease when you have a particularly cold winter?

14 thoughts on “Climate, Weather, and Public Opinion

  1. I think it would help people’s understanding if we gave explicit examples of what would count as evidence for and against man made global warming and some measure of how strong the evidence is for/against, e.g very weak, weak, strong, very strong. So for example, 10 years of cooling as measured by UAH is evidence agains AGW and this is weak/strong/whichever because ….

  2. 2009 is the hottest summer on record for Austin TX. At the moment we are having near-record cold.

  3. Assuming that local phenomena cover the whole globe is the approach that leads to the comb-over. But, some guys still use the comb-over. Optimism can be dangerous when overused…

  4. Here in Columbus, OH, the local newspaper publishes a wrap-up of the weather for the previous year. Columbus was about 1.8 degrees above normal in 2009. Of course, nobody highlighted that, and there were enough cold spells that, without looking at the data, the average person might have thought it was colder than normal.

  5. A little while back, I wrote up two entries about climate, and how to try and use alternative ways to try and explain the necessity of looking at long-enough trends of data and the difference between climate and weather:

    Let me know what you think about them – both in terms of accuracy (I can always use the help in accuracy) and if you think that they could be useful in discussing the issue of climate.

    (Disclaimer: the comparison of the Blue Jays’ end-of-season winning streak and climate trends was based what I heard on Countdown one evening, which was, in turn, summarizing a ThinkProgress entry. Still, I think it serves as a useful analogy.)

  6. People don’t think big enough.

    They think of their neighborhood, that’s it.

    Not only that, but the misinformed public thuinks that AGW means “all hotter, all the time,” and when the local weather is NOT always getting hotter, all the time, they think there’s no AGW. Most people have not grasped the concept that AGW means an increase in unusual or disruptive weather of all different types: tornadoes where they don’t usually occur, extreme cold spells as well as heat waves. It escapes them that one of the warmest overall years on record can also have one of the nastiest freezing spells.

    They are fooled by the word “warming”. Since it’s cold outside in January, there must not be any ‘warming’ happening, or at least not enough for us to think much about. This is the level that most people function at.

    I once had a denialist tell me it’s impossible for humans to have any real effect on the climate because when you look at the Earth from space, an individual human is too small to see. In a testament to the absolute irrationality of denialism, let me add that this individual had a masters in computer science from a top ivy league technology school.

    I reminded him that by his logic, viruses could not make anyone sick, because the virus is too small to be seen when you look at the human body as a whole. Having just dealt with a bout of the flu, he couldn’t counter-argue that.

    Whoops! Time for a subject change!

    It’s just further evidence that denialism is an emotionally-driven phenomenon. People are emotionally invested in not wanting climate change because they don’t want to change their lives to deal with it, or don’t want to think of themselves as contributing to the deterioration of the planet.

    This dovetails with the right-wing noise machine, but the motivations of the noise machine are to protect the profits of the fossil fuel industry.

    Being creatures that cling to our habits, we invent novel logic to prop up our irrational beliefs, beliefs we hold because we want to hold them, not because there’s solid evidence they are correct.

    Anyone who has analyzed the logic of an addict to support their habit can easily see that most everyone engages in funky logic to support their odd habits.

    Really, everyone has some level of denialism. It’s a hard battle to overcome it because reason usually is not strong enough to pry a person away from an emotional attachment.

    It also explains why you sometimes see educated people, such as scientists and doctors, cross over in to becoming advocates of denialism or woo – the decision is based either on greed, or emotional attachment, propped up by some funky logic that just serves to justify it.

  7. People are obviously not well adapted to noticing changes over decadal periods. Here in Europe, we are now so obsessed with the freakily cold weather we have been having for the last month that people have already forgotten that two months ago we were in the middle of one of the mildest and wettest Novembers on record.

  8. Well, it cuts both ways. People also point to local heat waves or dry spells as evidence FOR global warming. Post Katrina, there were so many alarmist articles and stories in the popular press about how global warming would lead to massive surges in hurricane frequency and intensity over the short term, even though the scientists themselves tended to speak with much more precision, with lots of qualifiers and statements of uncertainty. Then we had 3-4 years of low to medium (read manageable) hurricane activity, and suddenly that press stopped. No-one published articles distancing themselves from their earlier scaremongering.

  9. Prasad that is Chad’s point I think. He is asking if there are any meta-studies that look at some long running done over and over study asking about belief in man-made global warming and correlate its results with current local weather.

  10. is throwing errors at the moment, but the link in comment #2 does include a post containing information on such a study. It was something like 3% increase for 1 degree above average, or 1% increase for 3 degrees above average, but I can’t get to it to check.

  11. Markk, okay sure. I was responding to the commenters who I think view the problems of conflating weather with climate, or of overstating the significance of temporary features, as being largely on the denialist side of the global warming issue. I don’t think that’s quite right, though it IS more true than it is false. How often have you heard someone tell you sagely that hot weather (or unseasonal rain, or unusual weather of any sort) must be something to do with global warming?

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