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Academic Survey: This Year's Cold Winter Boosts Skepticism

By Christa Marshall, E&E reporter
6/11/2014 10:04:24 AM

The frigid weather across much of the United States this winter likely dampened belief in global warming the following spring, according to a survey from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College.

The analysis found that approximately one-third of Americans polled in March and April -- when huge swaths of the country were still experiencing extreme winter weather -- said they didn't think there is solid evidence of global warming, a four-year high of skepticism. While a majority of spring respondents -- 55 percent -- expressed belief in warming this year, the percentage decreased 6 points after the winter months.

Combined with six years of data gathered by asking Americans the same questions several times a year, the findings suggest a link between severe weather seasons and broader beliefs with climate change, according to the researchers.

"While most Americans do not change their views on the existence of global warming with changes in the weather, there is a cohort of Americans who continue to have their views on climate change altered by their personal experiences with weather," said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College and author of the survey. This subset of Americans includes both skeptics who tend to grow in numbers after cold winters and climate believers who are influenced by drought conditions, according to Borick.

Borick and his co-researcher, Barry Rabe of the University of Michigan's School of Public Policy, say the survey corroborates their upcoming research in an American Meteorological Society journal finding that snow and temperature patterns can help predict an individual's position on warming.

Satellite Image Shows Entry of the Polar Vortex into the Northern U.S. on January 6th, 2014. (Credit: Flickr/NASA Goddard Space and Video)

Borick and Rabe found that the percentage of Americans who said they believed in global warming dropped in the spring in four out of five years after either normal winter conditions or colder-than-usual conditions. The decline in belief ranged from 3 to 13 percent in those cold winter years.

"After this winter who could even ask that," said one Texas woman cited in the 2014 spring poll when asked to cite the reason for her climate skepticism.

The only year when the belief level bounced up in the spring between 2010 and 2014 was in 2012, which ranked as the warmest winter season in the United States since record collection began in 1895, the survey said.

'Personal observations' remain convincing

Borick and Rabe also asked skeptical respondents to cite the primary factor behind their beliefs. In four of the five spring years after cold winters, 31 to 43 percent said "personal observations" were the primary factor in their disbelief in global warming. In 2012, however, that "personal observations" percentage dropped by half from the previous year after a very warm winter.

Similarly, people who said they believed in global warming tended to emphasize warm or dry weather. "It goes both ways," Rabe said.

In spring 2012, after a hot winter, for instance, 35 percent of climate believers said "mild winters" had a very large effect on their view that the Earth is getting warmer. On the other hand, 15 percent this year expressed a similar view, immediately after the frigid temperatures. The survey also documented that drought tended to rise in importance in the minds of climate believers in drought-stricken areas of the country.

There were some anomalies in the data. In spring 2010, for example, the drop in belief in warming after the winter was the largest of the five studied years, yet that winter was not the coldest of the five. Rabe emphasized that weather is an important factor, but not the only one. "That survey coincided with the final gasps of debate over a climate bill in the Senate and a major effort to discredit climate science. So in that case, I would look more for other factors," Rabe said.

The survey is not the first to examine the weather-public opinion connection, nor does it end the debate about weather's significance. In March, Gallup reported that Americans don't attribute cold weather or droughts to climate change.

In January, a paper in Nature Climate Change reported that people's most immediate experiences -- like weather -- may drive broader beliefs about climate change (ClimateWire, Jan. 13).

Borick said the news research should serve as a "cautionary sign" with messaging efforts to connect weather events and climate change, even though it may be tempting for advocates to do so after an event like Superstorm Sandy.

"But such a move opens the door for cold temperatures and snow anomalies to be used as evidence that counters such claims," Borick said.

The Muhlenberg/Michigan poll was conducted with 798 adults via landline and cellphone interviews between March 24 and April 19. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

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