Public Perception of Cold Weather Events as Evidence For and Against Climate Change

by Tim Storer

Many studies have documented the relationships between local weather and public perception of climate change, and have shown that local warm temperatures lead to an increase in public belief of global climate change, and colder ones increase skepticism. In contrast, some researchers have observed more varying responses to extreme events, sometimes finding a heightened belief in climate change. In order to understand this discrepancy, research was done to see why public perception of climate change divides in different directions in response to local weather extremes. It was observed that this divergence can be attributed to a psychological phenomenon known as “biased assimilation,” and that pre-existing climate beliefs play a determining factor in response to local weather (Capstick and Pidgeon 2013). Given this finding, one can postulate that even if climate change were to accelerate, and become even more extreme, it would not necessarily increase public belief, but rather further divide the public consensus.

Stuart Capstick and Nicholas Pidgeon sought to examine the determining factors for responses to local weather events, and did so by conducting a survey of 500 sample people from the United Kingdom. Their survey started with broad questions regarding the importance of various societal issues, including climate change. Along with a few open response questions, subjects completed 52 closed-answer questions regarding their self-perceived knowledge of climate change, confidence in scientific consensus, and their perceived ability to combat climate change. These questions were designed to test for skepticism of three different ideas: the existence of climate change, the whether it is caused by human activity, and the potential for severe impacts. The researchers presented these questions in a different random order for each participant, and the wordings were carefully chosen. To test the relationship with broad climate views and local cold temperatures, many questions asked about the winter of 2010, an especially cold winter, and whether this instance was indicative of evidence for or against climate change.

When asked whether recent cold winters were indicative of climate change or in opposition to the theory, a ratio of about 3:1 individuals said they saw the cold winters as being indicative of long term global climate change, and only 16.1% voiced agreement with the opposite position. This evidence is in contrast with studies that have reported increased skepticism of climate change in wake of cold local weather.

Respondents who expressed highly skeptical views in the early part of the survey showed much higher rates of seeing a cold 2010 winter as being evidence against climate change than those who had moderate or non-skeptical views. In all regards, general climate skepticism was a strong predictor of respondents interpretation of the cold 2010 winter. These data show that people with an overall dissenting view of climate change are most likely to interpret recent cold winters as further evidence against climate change, significantly more so than those with different views. Other significant findings include an observation that those who believed in climate change tended to be more committing in their responses, whereas the skeptics were less willing to assert their position and more often gave neutral responses. This was shown to be true specifically in the context of asserting whether or not the cold 2010 winter was indicative of climate change.

All of these findings build upon the idea that local weather does have an effect on perception of climate change reality. However, these effects are more complicated than other studies have suggested, and the exact response is subject to a person’s pre-existing stances. The researchers also mention the role of media, which has attributed the 2010 winter as evidence both for and against climate change. Given the media’s influence, this could result in the public division caused by such events. This study also shows that there may be a more insightful public opinion than others have presumed. About a third of the subjects did not attribute the cold 2010 winter as evidence for or against climate change, meaning that they rejected the idea that isolated weather observations could draw conclusions about global climate change.

Capstick, S.B., Pidgeon, N.F., 2014. Public perception of cold weather events as evidence for and against climate change. Climatic Change 122, 695-708.

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