Foul and Fair Weather Friends?

by Bill Chameides | April 15th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Perceptions of climate change really do run hot and cold, new research suggests.

Over the past few years, polls have shown the public to be a bit fickle when it comes to climate change and concerns about it. For a time it seemed concern was on the rise but more recently it seems to be waning. (But then some question the polling itself — e.g., how the questions are posed — as well as its interpretation and reporting.)

But if you believe all the up and down, what’s behind it?

One theory is that scientists have been out-messaged by the sophisticated PR machine of the refudiaters. If that’s the case, then what’s wrong with the climate-change message? How can it out-out-message the refudiater message?

To answer that question, scientists have been studying how different messaging affects people’s perceptions of climate change. Some investigators found that cultural identification with the messenger can be important and another group found that whether the message focused on dire consequences or positive solutions can affect some people’s perceptions of the problem.

Mind the Nerd Loop

Another, more iconiclastic take on the issue came earlier this month from marine biologist Randy Olson, the brains behind Shifting Baselines, a multipronged media effort to spotlight “the severity of ocean decline.”

On April 6, Olson did a little venting on his blog about communicating on climate science. In a post sporting the headline “THE NERD LOOP: Why I’m losing interest in communicating climate change,” Olson decried the increasing trend in the climate community to get caught up in the “nerd loop” of communicating about communicating rather than finding an effective, engaging way to approach the actual subject of climate change and then running with it.

Whence and Whither Weather

Now comes a new paper that suggests this whole to-do over messaging might be moot.

Ye Li of Columbia University and colleagues looked not at how the “message” affects people’s views of climate change but whether the weather, and specifically the local temperature, played a role — but with an important twist. Rather than just focusing on how absolute temperatures affect people’s perceptions of climate change, the authors looked at perceptions of temperature deviations. Specifically, they examined the relationship between perceptions of climate change and how people perceived the current temperature relative to the usual for that day — the kind of perception that leads us to say “it’s a hot one today” or “it’s chilly out there.” Their results were published in the journal Psychological Science.

In three, separate Internet-based surveys the researchers polled two sets of people from the United States and one set from Australia. In the first part of the study, 582 Americans were asked to take a “quick 3-minute“ Web survey to first rank on a scale of 0-3 whether they believed the globe was warming and, if so, how concerned they were. Then they were asked to rank on a 5-point scale (-2 being much colder and +2 being much warmer) how they perceived the day’s local weather was compared to what would be expected for that time of year.

Because the researchers didn’t want results solely around winter or summer events, within one week of their first survey they conducted a second poll with Australians whose weather would be the opposite. In all, 290 Australians were given a similar Web survey, except with the weather and global warming sections reversed. This change in order, the authors reasoned, would help the researchers “assess whether people were aware of the influence of local temperature deviation on their global-warming attitudes.”

For the final leg of their study, 251 participants drawn from a database of Columbia’s Center for Decision Sciences Virtual Lab took a Web-based survey that essentially duplicated the questions and methodology of the first study with one additional question: Would they donate part of the fee they were awarded for completing the study to the advocacy group Clean Air-Cool Planet?

Turning It Up or Down a Notch Makes a Difference

The results are striking, although when you think of it not all that surprising. When people reported that temperatures on the day of the survey were warmer than usual, they tended to show greater belief in and concern for global warming. And just the opposite on cold days. And here’s the kicker: not only were the ”high temperature” folks more concerned about global warming, they were more likely to donate money to the nonprofit.

The authors “interpret this result as attribute substitution, in which an easily accessible judgment (the current day’s local temperature) is used in place of a more complex and less accessible one (global temperature trends).”

This is kind of disturbing if you’re into messaging and how to message since it suggests that the current temperature is more important than the specific message (and data and research) you use. It’s not so great for climate scientists either, as it suggests that the credibility of your work is subject to the vagaries of the weather from one day to the next. But then I found this wonderful little nugget at the end of the Li et al paper referring to another group’s work:

“The work of Risen and Critcher (in press) complements our results: In an experimental manipulation of temperature deviation, they found that increasing the ambient room temperature increased belief in global warming.”

And when I read that, it all made sense. Maybe it’s not the messenger or the messaging. It’s the room temp. That’s why Congress didn’t pass that climate bill. A refudiater mole in the Senate chambers secretly lowered the thermostat.

filed under: Australia, climate change, faculty, global warming, temperatures, weather
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