Does Weather Sway Public Opinion on Climate Change?

By Keith Kloor | February 6, 2013 10:25 am

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]

  • harrywr2

    Fortunately or unfortunately the US Senate was purposely designed to avoid taking major policy actions based on public opinion du jour.

    Those who are writing ‘op-eds’ about the serious of ‘climate change’ every time a weather event occurs are wasting their ink.

    Waxmax-Markey never made it to the Senate floor.

  • mememine

    The real sad part is that science has only said any crisis “might” happen, not “will” happen as not one IPCC warning is without “maybes”.

    Only news editors and pandering politicians and the end of the world freaks are saying any crisis “WILL” happen. How history will both laugh and cry at this CO2 insanity eh?

  • http://www.geekchoice.com/washington-dc Dagmar Schneitz

    I didn’t believe in climate change until the last several years and saw tornadoes in Massachusetts and blizzards in Georgia. Now I’m starting to wonder.

    • RagnarDanneskjold

      You saw them because people now have video cameras in their pockets. It’s just like the polls where people say child abduction or school shootings are becoming more prevalent. They’re not; it’s just 24/7 media makes local stories into national news.

    • Buddy199

      There’s a rule opf thumb in science: A lot of separate anecdotes do not equal a trend, they equal a lot of anecdotes.

  • RagnarDanneskjold

    On the right, some of the weather/climate “mix-ups” are sarcasm. It was MSM reporting and climate change folks that first equated weather with climate to push the agenda when heat waves were occurring in the early-mid 2000s. There’s definitely morons on the right as well as the left, but quite a few right-wing comments in this regard are meant to mock the media and alarmists.

    • BBD

      Those ‘alarmists’ that

      equated weather with climate to push the agenda when heat waves were occurring in the early-mid 2000s

      were mistaken?

      What about the extreme heatwaves since? Like the two that hit Australia in 2009, the one in Russia in 2010, the US 2012 roaster and the record-breaker that has just cooked Australia in 2013.

      That’s an awful lot of extreme hot weather events around the world since 2009. In fact the frequency seems to be increasing…

      But of course it’s only weather and anyone who says otherwise is an alarmist.

      Speaking of which, why the demon mask avatar? Are you trying to frighten people?

      • Buddy199

        . The recent editorial in Nature concluded:

        “Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming.”

        http://www.nature.com/news/ext

        • BBD

          The Nature editorial over-states its case. Let’s look at the published literature instead, for example <a href="http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-012-0668-1"Coumou et al. (2013):

          The last decade has produced record-breaking heat waves in many parts of the world. At the same time, it was globally the warmest since sufficient measurements started in the 19th century. Here we show that, worldwide, the number of local record-breaking monthly temperature extremes is now on average five times larger than expected in a climate with no long-term warming. This implies that on average there is an 80 % chance that a new monthly heat record is due to climatic change. Large regional differences exist in the number of observed records. Summertime records, which are associated with prolonged heat waves, increased by more than a factor of ten in some continental regions including parts of Europe, Africa, southern Asia and Amazonia. Overall, these high record numbers are quantitatively consistent with those expected for the observed climatic warming trend with added stationary white noise. In addition, we find that the observed records cluster both in space and in time. Strong El Niño years see additional records superimposed on the expected long-term rise. Under a medium global warming scenario, by the 2040s we predict the number of monthly heat records globally to be more than 12 times as high as in a climate with no long-term warming.

        • BBD

          [html error above:]

          The Nature editorial over-states its case. Let’s look at the published literature instead, for example Coumou et al. (2013):

          The last decade has produced record-breaking heat waves in many parts of the world. At the same time, it was globally the warmest since sufficient measurements started in the 19th century. Here we show that, worldwide, the number of local record-breaking monthly temperature extremes is now on average five times larger than expected in a climate with no long-term warming. This implies that on average there is an 80 % chance that a new monthly heat record is due to climatic change. Large regional differences exist in the number of observed records. Summertime records, which are associated with prolonged heat waves, increased by more than a factor of ten in some continental regions including parts of Europe, Africa, southern Asia and Amazonia. Overall, these high record numbers are quantitatively consistent with those expected for the observed climatic warming trend with added stationary white noise. In addition, we find that the observed records cluster both in space and in time. Strong El Niño years see additional records superimposed on the expected long-term rise. Under a medium global warming scenario, by the 2040s we predict the number of monthly heat records globally to be more than 12 times as high as in a climate with no long-term warming.

          • Buddy199

            After a survey of the literature and examination of the existing models, Nature concluded that anecdotal weather events cannot be reliable linked to a larger global climate trend. To toss that scientifically sound judgment aside is an example of denialism.

          • BBD

            It’s an editorial Buddy, not a published, peer-reviewed paper. More importantly, you (but not Nature) are confusing *climate models* with statistical analysis of climate behaviour. See also Hansen et al. (2012):

            “Climate dice,” describing the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons, have become more and more “loaded” in the past 30 y, coincident with rapid global warming. The distribution of seasonal
            mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased. An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3σ) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period. This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10% of the land area. It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small. Wediscuss practical implications of this substantial, growing, climate change.

          • Buddy199

            The dice certainly are loaded:

            Since 1880, when reliable temperature records began to be kept across most of the globe, the world has warmed by about 0.75 degrees Celsius. From the start of 1997 until August 2012, however, the trend derived from the aggregate data collected from more than 3,000 worldwide measuring points, has been flat.

            This trend was contrary to the predictions of climate models and the consensus within the field based on historical observation that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon cause a lock step increase in global temperatures. In other words, climate scientists do not have a solid handle on the degree to which natural variations in solar activity, ocean currents, cloud physics, heat islands / metropolitan areas, etc. interact and affect the global climate system.
            Despite so many desperately wishing it were so, the science is far from settled. Certainly not to the point of using it as the basis to unend the world’s industrail economy.

          • BBD

            You are changing the subject. Please acknowledge that you have misrepresented (or at the very least misunderstood) the Nature editorial. Then we can move on.

  • JeffN

    One of Donner’s assertions seems to be contradicted by his data.

    He told you: “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 .”
    But he found that the New York Times ran more than twice as many opinion columns about climate change as the Wall Street Journal. And since we all know both the position of the Times’ columnists and the…. ahem… problems with weather attribution a more accurate phrasing would be- despite the best efforts of partisans at leading news organizations to flood the zone, the scientifically unsound practice of crying wolf after every storm and sunny summer week is also an ineffective strategy.
    No breakdown of what percent of columns attributed weather to AGW and what percent argued cold weather disproved it?

  • Buddy199

    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.

    ————–

    Every year, starting right after Memorial Day, we also see an increase in the number of shark attack stories, which by Labor Day are gone with the Summer birds. So, it’s not surprising that the number of editorials and media stories about climate change correlate with the weather.

    However, it is scientifically inaccurate and misleading to attribute anecdotal weather events to climate change. The recent editorial in Nature concluded:

    “Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming.”

    http://www.nature.com/news/extreme-weather-1.11428

    So, “media coverage of severe weather events–which increasingly are attributed to or associated with climate change” is flat out inaccurate reporting. That doesn’t stop AGW activists and their media pals from promoting the misconception since they tend as often as AGW skeptics to ignore data that conflict with their ideology. They just it more cynically from their pulpit as self-appointed “people of science”.

    Simon Donner’s response above is particularly curious coming from a “researcher”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t research about gathering data to arrive at a factual conclusion (wether you like it or not), rather than collecting data to support a pre-conceived ideological stance?

    Donner: “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.” He obviously can’t conceive of an AGW opportunist doing the same during a hot summer.

  • Tom Scharf

    “to spew mis-truths about climate change during a cold winter”

    How far south has academia gone when it is OK to say things like this? I think a lot of people just stop reading when they get to verbiage like this, whether you are pro or con on the subject. It is completely unnecessary and only serves to expose your bias. It shows that the author is emotionally invested in the subject which leads directly to confirmation bias problems.

    It would be interesting to know the ratio of articles after warm weather events vs cold weather events. From my experience it is the NYT and other MSM outlets that are guilty of “spewing” misinformation about extreme event and local weather attribution much more often than the WSJ.

    Also missing in this post was the magnitude of the swing. I saw one related article that showed the swing was only +-2% depending on the recent weather. This isn’t going to get any carbon taxes passed.

    • jh

      Good questions.

      But the bottom line is that this sort of “research” is so easy to slant before it starts that it’s not worth doing.

      The basic question the research is asking is “Why won’t they listen to the brilliant minds of academia?” Tragically comical given the blatant bias of the work.

  • Richard_Arrett

    Perhaps later research could show that people tend to worry about drought during drought, or flooding when a great deal of rain falls in a short period of time.

  • jh

    “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.”

    It’s interesting that the “scientific consensus” is apparently not capable of “spewing mis-truths” about climate change.

    It’s not surprising that this view comes from academics.

    This reminds me of getting pulled over for speeding. If you’re completely ignorant of your speeding (Oh, jeez, I’m SO sorry officer, I didn’t realize I was going 73 in a 60!), there’s a good chance you’ll get a free pass. No matter that your responsibility as a driver is to always know the speed limit.

    Scientists have historically sought refuge in ignorance for failed predictions (we didn’t know that then!) despite frequent warning signs. The number of “No Major Calamity Ahead” signs that the “consensus” has passed is starting to add up, but the “consensus” still seems to have the pedal to the floor.

    Will they get a free pass again?

  • BBD

    Keith

    Since the voting system simply allows the contrarians to demonstrate that they absolutely dominate the commenting demographic here, perhaps you should turn it off.

    Otherwise, I think I’m going to follow suit with the rest of your former non-contrarian audience and call it a day.

    There are limits.

    • Nullius in Verba

      The voting buttons are very much like the way “the scientific consensus” is formed, which is why I turned them off several days ago. There’s a drop-down control called “Discussion” at the top of the comments, and you can switch it to ‘Oldest’ and then ignore the votes.

      Did you notice that you can edit comments, too? That has all sorts of potential for abuse! (It’s more usual to allow editing for a set time period like half an hour, to fix those typos you only spot ten seconds after posting, or to add a bit of polish.) But I’m sure we’ll all work to maintain our reputations for spotless honesty in that regard.

      Please don’t make your style of contra-contrarianism a cloistered and fugitive virtue. It would be boring, otherwise! There’s bound to be some dust and heat.

      • BBD

        nullilus

        Thank you for the pointer. Unfortunately, despite KK’s frequent past protestations to the contrary, comments here have become an echo chamber, as demonstrated by the voting system.

        As the contrarian swarm knows well, bad information drives out good.

        • BBD

          And nullius, scientific consensus emerges from what cannot be falsified therefore is *provisionally* agreed upon.

          Your comparison with the ‘vote for our team’ system is as absurdly wrong as it is self-serving. You do yourself no favours.

          • Nullius in Verba

            Scientific knowledge (provisionally) emerges from what cannot be falsified. “Consensus” is something else entirely, emerging from what social groupings of scientists collectively believe or can be persuaded not to openly disagree with. Scientists are human, and the social dynamics doesn’t always follow scientific method.

            The votes here are just meaningless numbers, like any other internet poll. But if you want to go, it’s up to you.

          • BBD

            Social groupings of scientists collectively believe/don’t openly disagree with only that which has not been falsified. Scientific consensus emerges exactly as I have suggested – from that which has not been falsified and therefore can be provisionally agreed.

          • BBD

            Therefore this is self-serving rubbish:

            The voting buttons are very much like the way “the scientific consensus” is formed

            Of the sort that both characterises and poisons your discourse.

          • kkloor

            I’m not a fan of the voting button myself. I’d like to hear what else people are liking or not liking about the new system.

          • harrywr2

            Revkin had the voting button as do some other sites.

            I don’t generally see a problem with it.

            It’s was a nice feature on Revkins site that you could just look at ‘top comments’.

            In my experience ‘nuanced’ comments ended up being elevated and blatantly ‘tribal’ comments ended up on the bottom of the barrel.

            No one bothers reading blog comments for ‘blatantly tribal’ commentary. We could all just go to Romm’s place or Morano’s place for that.

  • wmdasco1

    In a 2500 molecule air sample ONE molecule will be CO2. That molecule can only react with 8% of the infrared spectrum. With a specific heat of 8.37, it’s ability to raise the temperature a measurable amount of the other 2499 molecules is physically impossible. This is the biggest swindle in human history.

    • Nullius in Verba

      Why is that physically impossible? The proportion of molecules on the boundary of a box compared to the number inside it is even smaller, and yet you can easily heat a gas by heating the box containing it.

      • wmdasco1

        What box? There are no boxes floating around in the sky that I’m aware of.

        • Nullius in Verba

          You seem to be arguing that a gas cannot be heated by such a small proportion of the molecules. But an even smaller proportion of molecules can do so easily in a different physical setting, such as an ordinary box of gas down here on the surface. So why do you say it is physically impossible?

          • wmdasco1

            My example used 2500 random molecules as they exist in the atmosphere. There is no box or boundary layer.

          • Nullius in Verba

            Yes, but you haven’t explained why it is physically impossible for the one CO2 molecule to heat the other 2499.

            I haven’t said there’s a box or boundary layer up in the atmosphere. I’ve said that in the separate case of a box, the one-in-every-million molecules that are in contact with the sides of the box are very easily able to heat the whole volume. So simply being a small fraction of the molecules does not logically imply that such heating is impossible.

            But perhaps it was a bad example. So forget the box and concetrate on the main question. Why do you think it is impossible for one CO2 molecule to heat (or cool) 2499?

          • wmdasco1

            Check out:

            http://www.businessinsider.com/a-smarter-way-to-deal-with-global-warming-2009-5

            A Smarter Way To Deal With Global Warming

            Jay Yarow|May. 17, 2009, 2:22 PM|

            AN INTERVIEW WITH BJORN LOMBORG: This global-warming expert emphasizes sensible solutions to an often-sensationalized issue.

            ….When I first started in the global-warming debate, I was struck by the fact that the world was going to pay $180 billion a year for a protocol that could at best reduce the temperature by 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the 21st century. The U.N. estimates that for less than half that amount, we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, and basic health care and education to every single human being on the planet. The same warped sense of priorities will continue to bedevil us this December in Copenhagen.

            AND:

            http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1655856/posts What, then, is the benefit?

            In a word, nothing. Kyoto wouldn’t stop whatever warming is caused by greenhouse-gas emissions; it would just slow it. And it would barely do that. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research calculated that the full global implementation of Kyoto would prevent 0.07 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2050, an outcome that is all but undetectable.

          • Nullius in Verba

            That’s all very well, but it doesn’t explain why you say it’s ability to raise the temperature a measurable amount of the other 2499 molecules is physically impossible.

            Is it impossible or not? If so, why?

          • wmdasco1

            It has to do with the physics and specific heat property of CO2 which is way too long a discussion to go into here.

            What is interesting is your out of hand dismissal of two expert opinions which is symptomatic of why this canard of mmgw has stayed alive. It has become liberal liturgy to our detriment.

          • Nullius in Verba

            Please, do go ahead with the physics if you like. I’ve got time.

            I haven’t dismissed your two expert opinions, I simply pointed out that they didn’t support what you said in the text cited.

            Although as a rule dismissing expert opinions is what I do. I ask people instead to explain the physics, to support their claims through argument and evidence, and not to rely on invoking the authority of experts. One side blindly invoke the authority of climate scientists with no personal understanding of the science they claim to be standing up for, the other side blindly invoke the authority of opposing experts and cite oposing scriptures, with equally little understanding.They believe what they’re told to believe by their masters, they have not the ability to do anything else.

            I prefer to make people think about what they say, and I do it to both sides. Don’t use arguments you can’t back up, because you’ll end up shredding the credibility of your own cause when people find out. (And they always will, eventually.) Know the justifications for your own opinions. People will judge your position by how well you argue for it – if people see that you’ll only make honest claims you know you can support, and if people see that you clearly know more than your opponent, they’ll be more inclined to listen to you. You’re at a disadvantage, so you have to be better than your opponents. But it requires a huge amount of work to learn the background and the science yourself, so you know what claims can be safely made and what can not. It takes a lot of practice at arguing, too, and you have to learn the lessons from your losses. It’s hard work. But success usually goes to those who work hardest.

            The best climate sceptics generally accept that the greenhouse effect is real, and that CO2 has a warming effect. What they mostly argue about is the feedbacks that supposedly magnify it from a fairly benign contributor to the climate buried in the natural background noise to something that sounds much more scary. The feedbacks are much more poorly understood. The mechanisms for the feedbacks have nothing to do with CO2. Trying to argue that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist is a losing proposition, and a waste of valuable time and credibility. Feedbacks are where it’s at.

          • wmdasco1

            Before attempting to explain, I need to know your background in Physics and math. I am a degreed civil engineer and a 40 year environmental professional.

            By the way, dismissing experts and citing climate sceptics as supporting a greenhouse effect is a bit inconsistent.
            I also have written a 6300 word paper on the subject if I had a way to get it to you. Parts of it can be found on http://www.waynesflipside.com

          • Nullius in Verba

            My background in physics and maths is very good. I can cope with whatever you’ve got.

            You ought to be able to explain the basic idea in a lot less than 6300 words. We can expand those bits that need expanding once I’ve got the basic idea/overview/outline. Give it a go. Then if we find we need to we’ll go further.

          • BBD

            nullius and I differ on most things, but his background in physics and maths is very good.

            And you are wrong and he is correct, which is going to make this even harder.

  • http://profiles.google.com/hypatia08 Hypatia Hypatia

    Further research, I suspect, is likely to hone in on the correlation
    between public opinion and media coverage of severe weather events…

    Methinks you meant “HOME IN” on the correlation…

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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