Last week, as extreme and early winter weather crashed into the continental U.S., it was inevitable that we once again started debating global warming. For some conservatives, unusual winter weather seems to spur dismissive comments about climate change -- even as liberals tend to explain why a changing climate may see more "stuck" weather (whether cold or hot) and more powerful snowstorms in some cases, due to greater water vapor in the atmosphere.
Such partisan disagreement about the relationship between climate change and weather extremes has become pretty routine -- but a new study just out in Nature Climate Change puts it in a fascinating new light. The research suggests the climate issue may have become so politicized that our very perceptions of the weather itself are subtly slanted by political identities and cues.
The paper -- by three sociologists, Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State, and Chenyang Xiao of American University -- examined people's perceptions of the winter of 2012, which was anomalously warm (the fourth warmest on record for the contiguous U.S.). Comparing Gallup polling results from early March 2012 (just after the winter ended) with actual temperature data from the lower 48 U.S. states, the researchers analyzed people's perceptions of the warmth of the winter they'd just lived through in light of the temperature anomalies that actually occurred.
The first result wasn't too surprising: In general, people accurately perceived that their weather had been pretty out of whack. In places where the winter was super warm, they said as much. "The greater the deviation of winter 2012 temperatures from the 30-year winter temperature average in respondents' states, the more likely that respondents report local winter temperatures to be warmer than usual," notes the paper.
But then, things got a little strange. It was no surprise that temperatures predicted people's perceptions of temperatures (duh), but what was surprising is the other factors that also shaped their assessment of how warm it was. The researchers found that political party affiliation had an effect -- "Democrats [were] more likely than Republicans to perceive local winter temperatures as warmer than usual," the paper reports. And beliefs about global warming also predicted temperature perceptions. People who were more likely to think that scientists agree about climate change, or to think humans are causing the phenomenon, also were more likely to report that the recent winter had been "warmer than usual."
It's important to underscore how weird this is: Your politics and climate beliefs should not -- you would think -- change your experience of weather itself. Yet these data suggest that whether people actually physically feel differently, or whether they remember and reconstruct their weather experiences differently, worldview is having a role. "It suggests to me that people have begun to filter their fundamental perceptions of what is going on at least partly through a partisan frame," explains study co-author Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State.
The influence of partisanship became still more significant when people were asked directly if the warm winter they'd just experienced was due to global warming. Here, not only being a Democrat, but also being a liberal and being a woman, predicted a willingness to blame anomalously warm weather on a changing climate.
For Dunlap, what this suggests is that we probably should give up on the idea that warmer temperatures, alone, will wake people up to the reality of a changing climate. Rather, our experiences of the weather -- and particularly weather extremes -- will be strained through partisan filters.
And if a warm winter doesn't make conservatives more open to climate change, then you can probably forget about trying to explain why certain types of cold extremes -- heavier snowfalls, or a loopy jet stream leading to a "stuck" weather pattern -- could also have a climate change component.
"If you can’t reach the committed conservatives on the fact that a significantly warmer season might be due to anthropogenic global warming," says Dunlap, "I think it’s going to be really hard to convince them that the current situation is due to anthropogenic climate change."