What Influences Public Opinion on Climate Change?

If you’re a resident of the eastern United States and weren’t already familiar with snow, this year’s winter probably brought new meaning. In the anticipation and wake of Winter Storm Juno’s record snow and wind, the governors of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island declared states of emergency, and the tri-state area enacted travel bans for several days. Later, Winter Storm Remus, an anomaly not in precipitation totals but rather in location, dumped a mix of rain, snow, and sleet across states as far south as Texas, cutting power for hundreds of thousands of customers. And, though Boston welcomed spring this March as every city, springtime snow only added to the city’s record snow totals. But why so much snow? Is our warming climate just a myth? How might these individual extreme events affect public opinion on climate change?

In the simplest form, snow falls when precipitation occurs under a certain temperature threshold. If we use this year’s record snow to “prove” or “disprove” climate change, we’re completely wrong in our logic—we have to elucidate the important difference between climate and weather. As an S&S article on the polar vortex of 2014 read, “No single weather event—no matter how hot, cold, or freakish—can really be given that scientific power.” Weather events affect just a small portion of Earth for a small timeframe, while “climate” refers to the summation—the norms, highs, and lows—of these weather events over a much longer timeframe.

However, an increasing frequency of heavy snowstorm seasons could have links to greater trends in increased precipitation due to climate change. On the whole, the air is, relative to earlier records, warm in the winter, which means more evaporation and more moisture. This relatively warmer air doesn’t necessarily preclude temperatures cold enough for snow, however, so clouds can simply precipitate this increased moisture as snow.

These distinctions between weather and climate become even more important when they pose implications for public opinion on climate change itself. As another article notes, belief in climate change grew after the record summer heat and hurricane season of 2012, but fell after an especially cold winter for much of the United States in 2013.

But studies such as these, which observe statistically insignificant changes in opinion over small, one-year timeframes, may ignore context; that is to say, other factors may have far greater influence at the national level over longer timeframes. An academic analysis of 74 separate public opinion surveys taken between 2002 and 2010 found that weather is just a small factor in determining public opinion about the occurrence of climate change. While particular weather events may influence the opinion of individuals in certain areas, typically in those areas most directly affected by the unusual weather, the study demonstrated that the effects are weak and ephemeral when evaluated at the national scale.

Rather, media coverage and “elite cues”—statements given from either side of the political divide on climate change—have the most influence. In fact, their influence is interdependent. The study found that media coverage was driven by statements by political parties or advocacy groups. So, while weather may be at the root of a local minimum or maximum on the graph of opinion over time, elite cues—distributed to the public via the media—are much more influential in the overall schema.

Another academic paper, however, might complicate our understanding of weather and scientific opinion further. Although weather deviations do prompt more Google searches for “climate change” and “global warming” per week at the state level, researchers found that members of congress, particularly Democrats, were more likely to vote favorably for environmental legislation if their state had experienced unusual weather.

Thus, instead of unusual weather alone, public opinion on climate change appears to be influenced by a more complicated trio of factors: the influence of state-level weather on political elites, the cues they project to the American public, and the role of mass media in publicizing these cues. Perhaps, then, efforts to influence public opinion about climate change might be better directed at politicians and advocacy groups themselves, and not at attempts to inform the individual’s response to weather more scientifically. But, as years pass, extreme weather could become more of the norm, with more citizens personally affected; we might soon have to rethink how opinion operates at the national level.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

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