Weather Changes People’s Climate Beliefs, Study Finds

Jan 14, 2014 09:50 AM EST
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A new study found that the state of the weather has a huge influence on the people’s beliefs about climate change.

Lisa Zaval, lead author of the study and a graduate student from the Columbia University, delved into discovering the connection between the current weather and people’s views on climate change. To gather the needed data, Zaval and her colleagues did a series of surveys administered to 686 people. The initial survey results ruled that the warmer the weather is, the more likely people are concerned about climate change and global warming.

However, the researchers postulated that this might be due to the fact that for the respondents, climate and weather is the same. The researchers did their second survey on 330 people, this time with a note that explains the difference between long-term climate change and short-term weather. Unfortunately, the note did not make any difference and the result is the same; the current weather influences people’s views on climate change.

"It's striking that society has spent so much time and effort educating people about this issue, yet people's beliefs can shift so easily," Zaval told LiveScience.com.

Finally, Zaval’s team tested a third hypothesis: what if the current weather brings back the memory of the similar weather throughout the year? For example, if today is hot, people might seem to recall hot days of the year better than the cold ones.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers surveyed another 300 people, this time, asking them to unscramble sentences that have to do with heat, cold, and a neutral topic. Those who spent more time unscrambling heat-related sentences were discovered to be more concerned about global warming. The data also showed that people who think that the current weather is warm tend to generalize that the year has been unusually warmer than the previous ones.

This priming effect may explain how people’s beliefs on climate change tend to be influenced by the current weather. As people process the most recent experience of weather, they tend to filter through their knowledge and therefore associate their answers to what they are currently experiencing.

"Unfortunately, we have not found a method to combat this effect," Zaval told LiveScience.com.

This study was published in the Jan. 12 issue of Nature Climate Change.

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