Earlier this year, we covered some polling data in which people were asked what factor shaped their acceptance of climate change. Buried in the data were two apparently contradictory findings: there is a large partisan divide in acceptance of climate change, but most respondents said they base their acceptance on their personal experience of the weather. Assuming that hot weather shows no partisan bias, this doesn’t make much sense—political beliefs shouldn’t influence what we think about the weather.
And yet they do. That’s the conclusion of a new paper that dives into extensive polling data to find out how people perceive different trends in the climate. The results show that not all weather events are created equal. When it comes to things like flood and droughts, most people seem to have accurately registered the recent trends in their area. But when the subject shifts to temperatures, the actual trends become irrelevant, and ideology and political beliefs shape how people perceive things. As the authors put it, “the contentious nature of the climate change debate has influenced the way in which Americans perceive their local weather.”
That authors of the study used data from about 8,000 poll responses, obtained between 2008 and 2011. The surveys included questions about how people perceived the weather in recent years. For temperatures, they were asked whether they were higher, the same, or lower than in past decades. Similar questions were asked about the frequency of floods and droughts. The survey also asked for self-assessments of political leanings, and included several questions that got at core ideological beliefs (such as egalitarian or individualist tendencies).
An interesting paper. When asked about weather that pertains to water – drought and floods – people are able to provide quite accurate descriptions of the trends in their locale. No matter what their political inclinations.
But when it comes to temperature trends, they completely fail – seeing no increase in locations with an increase if they are conservative and seeing an increase in locations with little increase if they are liberal.
Temperature has become politicized but precipitation has not. Yet the precipitation trends are just as indicative of the change in our global climate as temperature is.
So, the question I guess it whether discussing precipitation in the context of climate change will result in more people accurately understanding climate change or will their political inclinations cause them to disregard reality, as they do with temperature. Only time will tell.