When extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy batter coastlines or extended heat waves leave cities and towns parched, some climate justice activists have sought to find a silver lining amidst the grime news. Climate change deniers, they argue, might somehow see that the weather is changing over the span of their lifetimes, which could lead them to admit — finally — that humans are effecting the atmosphere. And, so the theory goes, the gap between liberals and conservatives on the issue of climate change might slowly close.
But the weather may not dictate global warming beliefs as much as previously thought. Some advocates for action on climate change have held out hope that public support of climate policy will increase as the effects of climate change are felt more dramatically. But a study published Monday in the journal Global Environmental Change by Michigan State sociologist Sandra Marquart-Pyatt finds that a person's feelings about climate change have very little to do with the weather outside and almost everything to do with political ideology and party affiliation.
"We only see really a sprinkling of effects of climate on people's perceptions," Marquart-Pyatt told VICE News.
Marquart-Pyatt and her co-authors reviewed dozens of papers on the emerging science of linking climate beliefs to climate realities, all of which were published after 2005. They found that despite some correlations between factors like temperature the day before the study was conducted and belief in climate change, no study found sufficient reason to believe that experiencing actual climate change will sway the public toward supporting climate policy.
A 2013 study, for example, polled 5,000 Americans over two and half years, asking if climate change is happening and whether it is caused by humans. It found that the temperature on the day before the poll affected whether an individual believed humans are causing climate change — but only if that individual identified politically as an independent.
Another study conducted in 2006, found that living in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise actually led to less support for climate policy, not more.
'Political orientation is the big story regarding climate change.'
Marquart-Pyatt's team took a different approach. They combined Gallup poll data with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Extremes Index, which compiles precipitation, temperature, tropical storm and hurricane wind velocity, drought severity data from across the country. Those records gave the researchers 800 different parameters with which to evaluate the relationship between climate change and public perception.
"We don't know if people think about climate in terms of storms or extreme weather events or super hot days or really cold days, or in terms of how we classically think about seasons," Marquart-Pyatt told VICE News. "So we looked at a bunch of different ways that people could conceptualize these different issues and linked these pieces with the Gallup data."
What they found was that only eight out of 800 parameters showed a statistically significant relationship.
Political ideology or party affiliation, on the other hand, remained linked to climate belief in every single model.
"There is very strong convergence on the dominant role of ideology or political party in shaping beliefs about climate change and science," Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of the 2013 polling study, told VICE News. "That is the main positive finding here and I think it's unquestionably true."
The finding echoes a shift in climate communication research away from the previously accepted "information deficit model," where scientists, advocates, and policymakers assume the divide between what climate scientists know and what many members of the public accept is due to a lack of available facts. One new area of research points to "solution aversion," where the suggested fixes for climate change clash deeply with a person's ideological beliefs, as the culprit.
"Political orientation is the big story regarding climate change," Hamilton told VICE News. "If people don't like the perceived solutions to a problem such as air pollution, they find reasons to doubt that it really is a problem, and hence to discount all those scientists who say that it is."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro