January 25, 2013, by Warren Pearce

Weather 1, Climategate 0

A short post sparked by this new paper linking public ‘belief’ in climate change with the weather conditions at the time they were polled (£).

From the abstract:

Belief that humans are changing the climate is predicted by temperature anomalies on the interview and previous day, controlling for season, survey and individual characteristics.

Or, as David Roberts prefers to put it, the public are ‘ignorant and fickle … public opinion …drifts back and forth with the weather”.

In my last post on how the public saw the link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy, I argued that while ‘climate change’ as a category has been absorbed into public discourse from science, most within society do not ‘see’ scientifically. This might explain the ongoing politicisation of weather by some within the climate debate seeking to bolster their arguments. Boris Johnson’s musing on the current cold snap being a high profile example.

The new paper by Hamilton and Stampone compares data from telephone interviews with temperature data at the time of the interview, finding that Independent voters are most likely to be swayed in their opinions on climate change by particularly warm or cold days. So while climate advocates such as David Roberts may throw up their hands in despair at society’s lack of scientific understanding, it seems that we may have to get used to the idea that tangible weather conditions are the primary way that many people understand the idea of climate change.

What does this have to do with Climategate?

Following the unauthorised release of climate scientists’ emails at the University of East Anglia, opinion polls showed a significant downturn in the proportion of public believing climate change to definitely be a problem. Pollsters did not ask why people had changed their minds, but media reporting was quick to place the change in the context of the Climategate controversy. And in Radio 4’s recent ‘Climategate Revisited’ programme, YouGov’s Peter Kellner stated:

The immediate impact of Climategate was to make millions of voters in Britain, America and other countries sceptical of the scientific consensus. YouGov found that just after Climategate broke that only 41% of the public trusted the scientists on climate change and that distrust seems to have carried on.

[Quote from transcript, available here]

However, as presciently noted by Leo Barasi at the time, post-Climategate polls were conducted in the midst of the UK’s coldest winter in 31 years. Might this have had more of an effect on public opinion than Climategate? The new paper by Hamilton and Stampone suggests it might.

What does this tell us about the aftereffects of Climategate? While it might be the case that the controversy had some effect, the evidence from Hamilton and Stampone suggests that it seems far more likely that the very cold winter of 2009-10 had a much greater effect (in the UK at least). If one extends the argument that most in society do not see the world scientifically, then perhaps Climategate left little impression on public perceptions  of climate change; when asked for their views, they may well have not thought about Climategate, climate scientists or the scientific theory at all. Rather, they were far more influenced by their everyday (or if you prefer, ‘ignorant’) experience of weather. This observation may not please those who favour scientific literalism in the public discussion of climate change. Neither is it meant to encourage those who jump on particular weather events to uphold their views of climate change. However, it does help to explain why the practice is prevalent, not only with those seeking to challenge climate science, but also those lobbying for much tougher policies on carbon emissions.


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate PoliticsScience Communication