Expert Commentary

Effect of local weather on perceptions about global warming

2012 study by New York University and Temple University on the link between local weather patterns and perceptions of climate change.

Large-scale policy solutions to the issue of global warming will require understanding and support from the public. Public opinion relating to the facts and urgency of addressing climate change, however, appears to depend on a variety of external factors. Of course, fleeting changes in regional weather are not the same thing as macro changes in climatic systems, but increasingly Americans are seeing mounting evidence of dramatic shifts in their environment.

In a 2012 study from New York University and Temple University, “Turning Personal Experience into Political Attitudes: The Effect of Local Weather on Americans’ Perceptions about Global Warming,” researchers try to isolate how temperatures influence views on climate change and examine how these effects are distributed across the spectrum of political engagement. The opinion-related data come from five national surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center from 2006 to 2008; the targeted weather data comes from a variety of government sources, including the National Climatic Data Center. The study was published in The Journal of Politics.

The study’s findings include:

  • Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is “solid evidence” that the Earth is getting warmer for each 3°F rise in local temperatures.
  • Local temperatures have a larger effect on individuals’ opinions than factors such as age, race and education.
  • A shift in local temperature from 4.3°F below normal to 14.7°F above normal increases by more than five percentage points the probability that an individual believes there is solid evidence for global warming.
  • The effects of local temperature depended on people’s degree of political awareness, with the effect greatest on those in the middle range. The views of people who were either very politically aware or not very aware — and therefore not as inclined to connect experiences with global issues — were less likely to have their views shaped by local temperatures.

The researchers conclude that opinions on global warming are indeed influenced by personal experience, and they suggest that other attitudes on policy issues might be investigated from the standpoint of personal experience.

Tags: global warming, climate politics

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