Are climate beliefs just blowing in the
wind? (Source: Stephen Hind/Reuters)
People's climate beliefs blow hot and cold depending upon the weather of the day, say US researchers. When people think the day's temperature is hotter than usual they are more likely to believe in, and feel concerned about, global warming. Likewise, when the day's temperature is lower than usual, people's belief in global warming plummets.
These are the findings of a new study from Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions published in Psychological Science. The researchers concluded that this myopic focus on their immediate experience suggested that people's beliefs can be as mercurial as the weather.
Using an online survey, the researchers asked a group of 582 people from the United States to report how convinced they were that global warming is happening and whether they were concerned about global warming. They were also asked whether they thought the day's temperature was warmer or colder than usual for that time of year.
Wanting to gather data during summer as well as winter, the researchers asked a group of 290 Australians the same questions a week later. To test whether people's perceptions translated into action, the researchers asked another 251 people whether they would donate a small amount of money to an environmental charity after they answered the survey. The researchers also found that people's perception of daily temperature influenced whether or not they would donate to the charity.
The study lead author Dr Ye Li said that their results raise the question of why beliefs in global warming are affected by daily temperatures. Respondents did not appreciate the complex nature of global warming and that it appears that some people are ready to be persuaded by whether their own day is warmer or cooler than usual, rather than think about whether the entire world is becoming warmer or cooler.
Professor Andy Pitman, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales says people's beliefs about global warming are heavily influenced by recent events, but they are also quick to discount disasters quite rapidly.
"It's a very complex area of human psychology," says Pitman who co-authored a paper on the psychology of global warming that appeared last year in the Bulletin of the American Meterological Society. "There is no relationship whatsoever between individual weather days and climate trends. Climate is a process operating on timescales of decades not days," he says. “So it is utterly scientifically irrational for there to be a relationship the weather on the day you answer that kind of questionnaire and your belief around global warming."
He believes this latest paper will help climate scientists understand how humans take on board information around climate change.
"We're rather desperate to understand the relationship between how people assimilate information in decision making and climate change in the hope that we can learn to communicate the science around climate change in ways that allow people to make informed decisions. As this paper suggests, people are personally embedded in something they think is climate in day-to-day weather and [climate scientists] haven't managed to convince them that what they see on a day-to-day basis is not relevant to the problem."
With acknowlwdgements to: ABC Health and Science Page