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After the warmest April in recorded history, don’t expect climate attitudes to change

We just closed out the hottest April on global record, tied with 2010. This year's El Niño could mean that 2015 will be even hotter than 2014. If recent history is any guide, though, neither of these things is likely to spur Americans to worry more about climate change.

This is what the world looked like last month, according to new data released by the National Climatic Data Center. Global land and water temperatures were 0.77 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average for the month of April. Land temperatures were  higher than that, at 1.35 degrees above the average.


Map from the NCDC.

But, some will say: It was cold where I live! Yes, that's true. This isn't uniform. On that map you can see that northern Russia was way hotter than normal for an April. Parts of North America, though, were below normal.

Next year could be even hotter than the record we just tied, thanks to the expected El Niño weather pattern. The Times' Nate Cohn argues to that effect in a new post. He spoke with climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research who thinks "it is 'reasonable' to expect that 2015 will be the warmest year on record if this fall’s El Niño event is strong and long enough." That, Cohn says, could help sway public opinion.

One-third of Americans don’t trust climate scientists, according to Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, and they make their decisions about climate change “based on very recent trends in warming.” Belief in warming jumps when global temperatures hit record highs; it drops in cooler years.

Well, "jumps" may be a little strong. Here is a comparison of the NCDC's data on annual anomalies in temperature with Gallup's annual survey of concern about climate change. (Pictured, those who said they worry about climate change a "great deal.")


There's not a very strong correlation. The biggest jump happened between 2005 and 2006, right as temperatures were continuing to increase — but also right when Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was released in theaters to much publicity and fanfare.

Which isn't to say that temperature data doesn't influence  public opinion on climate change. A University of New Hampshire study in January of 2013 found that more people accepted climate change as temperatures were warmer than expected. That change, though, was almost entirely among independent voters, as this chart shows. Democrats and Republicans were largely set in their belief patterns.

That's the ongoing problem when it comes to climate politics. It has become such a politically loaded topic -- what hasn't?! -- that even one of the hottest Aprils in recorded history likely won't change attitudes much. After all, we saw the hottest year in recorded American history in 2012 -- that big red spike on the second graph above. The next two years, the number of people who worried a great deal about climate change dropped.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.

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