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Blowing hot and cold: U.S. belief in climate change shifts with weather

05 February 2013 Springer Science+Business Media

Exposure to changeable temperatures influences attitudes to climate change

Being exposed to climate variations - temperature fluctuations in particular - can influence our opinions about climate change, according to a new study by Simon Donner and Jeremy McDaniels from the University of British Columbia in Canada. Their work shows that a cold snap may lead to skepticism over climate change, whereas a particularly hot spell may increase concern over climate change. Their work is published online in Springer's journal, Climatic Change.

Over the past 20 years, public opinion about human-caused climate change has varied in the United States. Individual attitudes to climate change are thought to be influenced by many factors, including personal values, political views, the media environment and personal experience. Donner and McDaniels' work explores the role of climate itself on their attitudes to climate change. Can the weather over the past few months influence public opinion about climate change and their willingness to change behavior or support climate policy?

The researchers used 1990-2010 data from national public opinion polls and a detailed analysis of opinion articles from major US newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.. They evaluated the relationship between average national temperatures and both the 'belief in' and 'worry about' climate change expressed in the polls, as well as attitudes to climate change expressed in editorial and opinion articles.

They found that climate variability may be one of the factors driving differences in opinion about climate change in the US. During seasons when average temperatures were warmer than normal, Americans tended to be more convinced and more worried about human-caused climate change. The researchers also suggest that headline-making weather strongly influences climate beliefs of individuals without strong convictions for or against climate change. In addition, the major newspapers tended to publish more opinion articles expressing either support for the scientific consensus on climate change, concern about climate change, or arguments for climate action.

Prof. Donner says, "Our findings help to explain some of the significant fluctuations and inconsistencies in U.S. public opinion on climate change. The study demonstrates just how much local weather can influence people's opinions on global warming. We find that, unfortunately, a cold winter is enough to make some people, including many newspaper editors and opinion leaders, doubt the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue."

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