It's the Weather, Stupid *

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 10, 2013 11:48 PM


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Last year, in an interview with New York Times reporter Justin Gillis, CJR's Curtis Brainard asked:

There's been a lot of debate about the extent to which media coverage does or does not influence public opinion about climate change and society's willingness to address the problem. Do journalists matter in this regard?

Gillis answered exactly as I (and any journalist) would have:

Well, if I didn’t think it mattered, I wouldn’t be doing it, but how that social dialectic works over the long run, I don’t really know.

What we do know is that the weather, above all, moves the needle on public opinion. So if there's an unusual heatwave or spate of freakish weather disasters, more people are inclined to believe that climate change is for real, as was the case last summer. But this cuts both ways. In a new survey, the Yale Project on Climate Change & Communication reports that,

since Fall 2012, the percentage of Americans who believe global warming is happening has dropped 7 points to 63%, likely influenced by the relatively cold winter of 2012-13 in the United States and an unusually cold March just before the survey was conducted.

At Slate, Will Oremus finds this latest pendulum swing to be "very frustrating" and suggests that "we should stop worrying so much about the minority of Americans who don't believe global warming is happening." This is good advice. I've never understood the angst that many seem to experience over these fluctuating public opinion numbers. As Andy Revkin has remarked,

there’s abundant evidence that much of public attitude on climate is, as I’ve been saying, the equivalent of water sloshing in a shallow pan — lots of fluctuations, little depth or commitment (particularly when money is involved).

It remains to be seen what will galvanize the public to rise up and demand action on global warming. Meanwhile, if you want to know what the average person is thinking about climate change at any given moment in time, just ask the weatherman to tell you which way the wind is blowing.

*The headline plays off this famous phrase from James Carville during the 1992 Presidential election.

[A cover story that appeared after Hurricane Sandy.]

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