This week’s moments of sparkling sunshine may make you feel more cheerful, but could an unusually mild January day leave you more likely to believe climate change is real? Two new studies explore the way we consciously and unconsciously associate weather patterns with climate change.
The science of substitution
A study out this week in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests people substitute the weather they are currently experiencing for climate science when asked whether or not climate change is happening.
The team behind the new paper wanted to test three theories as to why this phenomenon exists. Is it down to the wording of questions – whether they refer to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’, for example -, a lack of knowledge about climate science, or because people unconsciously substitute climate science with more-accessible immediate experiences?
The researchers from Columbia University in New York conducted a series of different experiments with representative groups to see which factor is most likely to affect whether people believe in and are concerned by climate change.
Wording did not appear to be a deciding factor: in one test of 686 respondents, the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ in the questions yielded no great difference in concern or belief.
In another, some of the 330 respondents were given a passage to read about the distinction between short-term weather patterns and climate before they indicated their levels of belief and concern. But researchers found little difference in this group’s reported belief in climate change and the others, who had not learned more about climate change before completing the test. This indicates lack of knowledge about climate science can’t explain why people answer in this way either.
In contrast, the answers respondents gave as to whether the day on which they completed the survey was unusually warm or cool was a good indicator of whether or not people said they think climate change is happening. This is because people use the evidence of what is happening to them right now as a stand-in for scientific evidence, the researchers say.
Because people have trouble visualising the body of scientific work on climate change, no matter how thoroughly peer reviewed, the paper suggests they instead draw on what they are experiencing right now.
Another test also demonstrated the unconscious influence of temperatures on attitudes. Before answering questions, some participants were given word puzzles that contained terms suggesting heat, some received a puzzle with ‘cold’-related terms, and one group served as a control set. Those that were primed with ‘heat’ words were more concerned about climate change and more likely to say they believe it is happening.
This effect appears to be isolated to the day’s temperature. When respondents were asked whether the previous day was hotter or colder, answers weren’t affected. And what is happening today is also likely to influence people’s perception of what the weather has been like more generally. On a warmer day, the researchers found respondents are likely to say there have been more warm days overall.
Unconscious and conscious links
The Columbia paper suggests cold weather may trigger greater skepticism. Lead author Lisa Zaval, quoted by Climate News Network, says the survey’s findings about warm weather events could apply to cold ones, too. She says:
“Our data suggest that perceiving today’s local temperature to be colder than usual can lead to decreased belief in and reduced concern about global warming”.
The paper points to 2010’s particularly cold winter, when US media gave voice to skeptics who claimed the frigid temperatures threw doubt on climate science as an example.
A second, separate, study conducted in 2011 in the UK suggests that substitution isn’t the only way people make judgments linking weather and climate, however.
In a study we cover in more detail here, researchers from Cardiff University found that when asked specifically whether 2010’s cold winter suggested climate change may not be happening, 49 per cent disagreed, while just 14 per cent agreed.
Source: Data from ‘Public perception of cold weather events as evidence for and against climate change’, Climatic Change; Graph by Carbon Brief.
The researchers concluded the public has rather a nuanced view of climate change. They suggest that the public understands climate is not directly linked to particular weather events, and that it is likely to mean disrupted weather as well as overall warming.
Dr Stuart Capstick at Cardiff University, who co-authored the paper, tells Carbon Brief:
“[Our] paper hinges on an association between a recent extreme winter and ‘climate change is happening’. In these terms, climate change makes sense primarily as a disruption: that can mean hotter weather, but it can also mean flooding, storms or extreme cold.”
So why do the studies produce seemingly contradictory results? Zaval tells Carbon Brief that they are in fact quite differently designed:
“We asked people whether today’s temperature in their local town or city seemed warmer or colder than usual. In the Cardiff study […] the authors directly asked whether participants thought the exceptionally cold winter […] ‘suggests climate change may not be happening’. We found that those who thought today was colder than usual showed lower levels of belief or concern. This bias likely occurs at an unconscious level.”
Capstick says both papers are revealing in different ways as to the importance of what meaning is ascribed to weather events. So when we are asked specific questions about weather and climate, we may give different answers to when we make an unconscious link between the current temperature and our belief or concern about climate change.
In addition, the Cardiff paper’s results indicate yet another layer of complexity in how we make these judgments: respondents’ worldviews and political leanings were a strong indicator of the level of belief they would report.
“While today’s temperature probably does matter, there is a chicken and egg issue here: is the weather being interpreted through the filter of one’s worldview, largely supporting a pre-existing position about climate change (as the Cardiff paper emphasises) or does the weather act as a form of informal evidence used by people on an ad hoc basis to come to conclusions about climate change (as the Columbia paper emphasises)? In short, it’s probably both of these things and more.”
The studies are conducted in different countries, which means we can’t rule out the fact that people in the UK and US have different understandings of weather and climate change.
But they point to the fact that we may simultaneously entertain contradictory notions about climate change. Cardiff’s study suggests climate communicators are making some leeway in driving home the complex relationship between weather and climate. Meanwhile, powerful unconscious mechanisms – be they changeable assessments of the current weather or our deep-rooted worldviews – also condition our attitudes.