Americans’ Belief in Climate Change Tied to Local Weather Events

Researchers found that people living in regions with recent historically high temperatures are more likely to believe in climate change.

Climate change map
December 19, 2016

By Kristen Mitchell

A new study co-authored by a George Washington University researcher finds that local weather may play an important role in determining Americans’ belief in climate change. The study found that Americans who recently experienced record low temperatures are less likely to belief the Earth is warming compared to those who have experienced highs.

“The idea here is that individuals make decisions about climate change not just based on what they read in the news but what they experience,” said Department of Geography Professor Michael Mann, co-author of “The Spatial Heterogeneity of Climate Change: An Experiential Basis for Skepticism.”

The paper was published in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences Monday.

One of the greatest challenges to communicating scientific findings about climate change is the cognitive disconnect between local and global events, Dr. Mann said. Americans who experience more record high temperatures than lows are more likely to believe the Earth is warming. Americans who have experienced more low temperatures—in areas like southern Ohio and the Mississippi River basins—are more skeptical.

Experts say climate change will have a diverse set of effects. It may cause some regions to get cooler in the short run while others grow warmer, but past characterizations of the global shift have seeded doubt with some skeptics.

“Unfortunately climate change was very early on framed as just climate warming,” Dr. Mann said. “If someone has a big snowstorm with new record low temperature, they may look at climate change and think ‘oh, that can’t be right.’”

“Who do Americans trust about climate change, scientists or themselves?” said Robert Kaufmann, geography professor in the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies at Boston University and lead author of the paper. “For many Americans, the answer seems to be themselves.”

Researchers also found a recent period of lower-than-average temperatures offset the effect of a long warming period. This further supports findings that people’s belief in climate change is local and experiential.

While climate change has become a divisive political issue, Dr. Mann said people in places that experience warming, regardless of their political beliefs, believe in climate change.

Researchers also found a recent period of lower-than-average temperatures offset the perceptions shaped by a long period of warming. This further supports findings that people’s belief in climate change is local and experiential.

Researchers looked at data from more than 18,000 local weather stations across the country and temperatures recorded there. That information was compared to the beliefs of people living nearby.

South Florida, the East Coast and the West Coast all reported recent high temperature records. States including Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri saw more record low temperatures.

It is important to differentiate between weather, the temperatures of a short period of time like a season and climate, the average temperatures of 25 or more years. Calling attention to the difference between these measures may help scientists communicate more effectively about climate change, the researchers said.

Researchers from Utah State University and the University of Oxford also contributed to the study.

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