Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Psychology of Weather and Climate Change

People often confuse unusal weather with climate change.*  While talking about climate change and weather together does not have much of a basis in fact, a recent study suggests that it might not be a bad strategy if what you want to do is influence public opinion. The study shows that people are more likely to believe that climate change is occurring if they confront the question on a day that is hotter than normal.

While I would oppose any strategy to win over the public that exploits their confusion about climate change, this study underlines the point that part of winning over the public will require us to better understand how to communicate the nature of climate change and its risks.  Many of those interested in addressing the problem understand this at a basic level, but research along these lines is at its beginning stages.  My estimation is that we ought to add the topic of how to communicate the risks of climate change to the long list of uncertainties related to the problem.

*  Today it is snowing at my house, which is unusual for this time of year.  So, I will bundle up and prepare for climate skeptics who see the snow as proof sufficent to debunk climate scientists.  This sort of thinking fails to grasp the concept of climate change in a couple of ways.  First, climate is measured over decades or centuries, not days.  Second, the sort of climate at issue in discussions of climate change is the global climate, so even if we witness a cooler or warmer climate for a particular area, this is only one of many data points that make up the global climate.  Of course, one confusing aspect of this is that one of the findings of climate change scientists is that climate change will lead to increased incidences of extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, cold waves, tropical storms, hurricanes, and floods.  Because of this, it is not unusual to hear even informed spectators of climate change opine on climate change when news cycles are covering extreme weather events.  When we do, the general line we are likely to hear is that while it is difficult (at best) to attribute an extreme weather event to climate change, over the longer term we should expect more of them and extreme weather is likely to become even more extreme when it occurs.

-- Brigham Daniels

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Interesting thought. What this line of thinking has made clear to me is that how the discussion is framed is likely to have a major impact on how it is received. Given that this is a world-wide dialogue, it is questionable how much research like this can really dent public perception. However, my sense is that such research would be quite valuable in the hands of leaders who often end up framing the discussion for the rest of us.

Posted by: Brigham | May 2, 2011 3:14:19 PM

This is really interesting. It is true, one of the things that gets some climate skeptics I know most riled up is "Al Gore telling them that a hurricane was caused by climate change." It is a bad strategy. One interesting counterpoint though is that we often bemoan the fact that one reason climate skepticism exists is because people cannot see the impacts on their lives day to day. With CFCs in the 80's and ozone people could measure sunburns and cancer by looking at their skin. The same is true with many chemicals and smokestacks spewing particulate matter that increases asthma, etc. So, one interesting thing might be to point to data showing people that "we have had more days above X temperature this year than in the last Y years. So, in the future, days like today will be the norm." Or something like that, just to convey how it will impact people in a real way in the future. Thus you can use warm days as an example, rather than a causal connection.

Posted by: Blake Hudson | Apr 30, 2011 9:24:36 PM

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