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Climate change worries rise and fall with temperature: UBC study

Categories: Canada, Community, Science & Technology, World

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Nevermind climate change research - it seems many laypeople are swayed by what they see outside their windows. (iStock photo)


If you think local weather patterns are in a constant state of flux, consider public opinion on global warming.

New research out of the University of British Columbia suggests that climate change concerns rise with the heat, but cool during cold snaps.

"Our study demonstrates just how much local weather can influence people's opinions on global warming," said UBC Geography Prof. Simon Donner, who led the study, published Tuesday in the journal Climate Change.

"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."

'Unfortunately, a cold winter is enough to make some people ... doubt the overwhelming scientific consensus on [climate change].'

--UBC Geography Prof. Simon Donner
Donner and former student Jeremy McDaniels studied how Americans' perceptions of global climate change were influenced by local weather patterns, especially temperature, over a 20-year period.

Using poll data and mainstream media coverage from 1990 to 2010, the researchers found that the general public, including media professionals, conflated short-term weather patterns and long-term climate trends.

This tendency explains some of the "significant fluctuations and inconsistencies in U.S. public opinion on climate change," said Donner, who observed a relationship between average national temperatures, climate change opinion polls, and media coverage of the issue.

  • The percentage of poll-takers who expressed worry about, or even belief in, climate change was significantly correlated with the mean temperature anomalies of the previous three to 12 months.
  • Similarly, the number of editorial articles in five major newspapers "agreeing" with the scientific consensus was significantly correlated with the U.S. mean temperature anomalies at seasonal and annual scales.

Although the authors acknowledge that other factors, like political ideology and personal values, affect public opinion on climate change, they argue that temperature itself also has a strong influence on people's willingness to change their behaviours or support climate policy.

"When mean temperatures are warmer than normal, the U.S. public tends to be more convinced and more worried about human-caused climate change, and the major agenda-setting newspapers tend to publish more opinion articles expressing either support for the scientific consensus on climate change, concern about climate change, or arguments for climate action," note the authors in their conclusion.

Do the results of this study surprise you? Are you careful to distinguish between local weather patterns and global climate change?

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Tags: Canada, environment, World

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