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Environment

Does Weather Sway Public Opinion on Climate Change?

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It appears that certain media moguls and self-important, publicity-addicted narcissists are in good company when it comes to confusing climate and weather. Yesterday, I was alerted to this press release, which starts off:

A University of British Columbia study of American attitudes toward climate change finds that local weather – temperature, in particular – is a major influence on public and media opinions on the reality of global warming. The study, published today by the journal Climatic Change, finds a strong connection between U.S. weather trends and public and media attitudes towards climate science over the past 20 years – with skepticism about global warming increasing during cold snaps and concern about climate change growing during hot spells.

I went ahead and read the study, which is very interesting (alas, it's behind a paywall). As the paper acknowledges:

Although past studies have suggested that a particular anomalous seasons, like the hot summer of 1988, influenced U.S. public opinion or media coverage of climate change (Shanahan and Good 2000; Zehr 2000; Boykoff and Boykoff 2004; Krosnick et al. 2006; Freudenberg and Muselli 2010), there has not as of yet been a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between climate variability and the variations in public and media opinion over time.

The media opinion/weather analysis is the aspect of the new paper that caught my eye. Its main finding surprised the researchers. Lead author Simon Donner said this to me via email, after I sent him a few questions (my emphasis):

Climate variability is clearly one of the factors in the swings in public opinion in the US over recent decades. The surprise, to me at least, was finding an even stronger relationship between weather and the op-ed writing across such a range of newspapers. The study certainly follow from what psychologists and others are finding about public attitudes of climate change. In this case, I suspect we are seeing the effect of what you could call climate 'swing voters', people who lack conviction in their thinking about climate change. So a cold winter, or an opinion columnist being given the space to spew mis-truths about climate change during a cold winter, might be enough to make them doubt the overwhelming scientific consensus .

There are some fascinating tidbits on the opinion media uncovered by Donner and his co-author, Jeremy McDaniels:

From 1990 to 2009, there were 2166 op-ed articles in the five newspapers which expressed an attitude about climate change according to the criteria in this study. The New York Times featured the most opinion articles (38 % of the 2166), followed by the Washington Post (31 %), the Wall Street Journal (16 %), and the Houston Chronicle (8 %) and USA Today (7 %). The number of opinion articles increased from an average of 55 per year during the 1990–1994 period to an average of 250 per year during the 2005–2009 period, and varied from year-to-year due to events like the release of IPCC reports (2001, 2007), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the relase of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and public controversies like “Climategate”.

What did their analysis reveal?

Importantly, the U.S. mean temperature anomaly, particularly in winter, spring and summer, is also correlated with the attitudes expressed in opinion articles about climate change published in the prestige press, including newspapers with different editorial positions (the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times) on the issue.

The two researchers conclude:

The results of this study suggest that the climate variability may be one of the factors driving variability in opinion about climate change in the United States since 1990. 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. Further research, involving repeat surveys of specific populations, is necessary to clearly distinguish between the role of personal weather experience and other correlates, including other prominent political events and media coverage of weather events.

Further research, I suspect, is likely to hone in on the correlation between public opinion and media coverage of severe weather events--which increasingly are attributed to or associated with climate change.

[Source for image/NOAA]

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