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.
the public saw a link between hurricane Sandy and climate change… (and so did the activists)
…. the problem is climate science does not see as link between Sandy and climate change..
there lies the dilemma.
th epublic merely reacted to activists media/politicians and a few activist scientists, which the see in the media, attributing Sandy, whereas, ie the Met office or NOAA does not..
have you read the IPCC SREX report.. that no attribution possible (ie event now) nor likely for decades..
My contention is not that the public is sceptical of climate science, but they have become sceptical of the media version of climate science.. very different
Many thanks Barry – raises some good points.
Right re public and activists seeing the Sandy/climate link. My theory is that the public recognise climate change as a ‘thing’, so many people are likely to reach for it as a way of explaining Sandy – certainly an unusual event whether or not it’s linked to climate (which you’re right, the IPCC seem to have rowed back on the evidence linking tropical storms and CC). Of course this is unscientific, but also quite normal I think. One might argue that activists have motivated reasoning in making the climate/weather link, although of course no side of the argument has a monopoly on that 🙂
I covered the role of the media in an earlier post, however it’s never very clear to me what the media-public relationship is on such matters. Who is influencing who? Obviously the media have a role, but I also think they have a keen sense of what their readers want to read about. One might argue that the contrasting perspectives of (most) Guardian and Telegraph coverage on climate match their ideological outlooks on the policy implications.
Agree there is a difference between media representation of climate science and the ‘actual science’ if you like, have tried to address this in earlier posts. I think you are right about the public being sceptical, but that this is a *general* scepticism about the quality of predictions rather than anything specific to climate science. Ironically, this future-scepticism is most commonly expressed in terms of weathermen ‘always getting it wrong’, Michael Fish 1987 etc, (although the uselessness of economic predictions is rapidly catching up).
In short, I think climate change is something that people are unlikely to spend much time thinking about, beyond “how’s the weather been recently”, therefore we have resolutely unscientific discussion of/attitudes towards a scientific issue.
Ordinary members of the public like me can’t access the paper by Hamilton and Stampone. So, ironically in a blog entitled “Making Science Public”, it is that very same public who are excluded from access to the base information.
Hi Ash, thanks for your comment. As you may be aware, there is a big push (at least in the UK) to make open access to academic papers the norm, rather than the exception. Of course that isn’t much help now, and the Hamilton & Stampone paper being behind a paywall is an immense pain – not to least to myself as I do not have access to the full paper either! However, this post only uses the broad findings of the paper as a starting point, which are available in the free-to-view abstract.
In my defence, the other seven links in the article are all free to read. I try to do this as much as possible but this is an academic blog so I cannot ignore the paper according to the policy of the journal publishers.
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