Study finds climate change beliefs in the U.S. linked with personal weather experiences
Meteorologists, climate scientists and journalists have apparently failed to convey the message that global climate change and local day-to-day weather conditions are two separate things. A study published this week suggests that Americans’ beliefs about global warming are based on how often they personally experience weather-related events.
One of the paper’s co-authors explained the findings in a press release.
“One of the greatest challenges to communicating scientific findings about climate change is the cognitive disconnect between local and global events,” said Michael Mann, associate professor of geography at George Washington University. “It is easy to assume that what you experience at home must be happening elsewhere.”
The study found that Americans who experience more record highs than lows in temperature are more likely to believe the earth is warming. Conversely, Americans who live in areas that have experienced record low temperatures, such as southern portions of Ohio and the Mississippi River basins, are more skeptical that the earth is warming.
According to the study, the language of climate communications may be key, with the phrase ‘global warming’ resulting in a cognitive disconnect. That term might have led residents living in areas that experienced an unusually cold winter to doubt that climate change is occurring.
“Who do Americans trust about climate change; scientists or themselves?” said Robert Kaufmann, professor in the department of geography and the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies at Boston University and lead author of the paper. “For many Americans, the answer seems to be themselves.”
The researchers also found that a recent period of lower-than-average temperatures offset the effect of a long warming period, further supporting their findings that people’s belief in climate change is local and experiential.
The scientists note the importance of differentiating between weather, the temperatures of a relatively short period of time such as a season, and climate, the average temperatures over a period of 25 or 30 years. Emphasizing the difference between weather and climate may help scientists more effectively communicate about climate change.
The paper, “The Spatial Heterogeneity of Climate Change: An Experiential Basis for Skepticism,” was published in Proceedings National Academy of Sciences.