Today's Weather Affects Attitudes on Global Warming

snowy landscape
Just because there's snow on the ground and a chill in the air doesn't mean global warming is not happening, scientists say. (Image credit: Stockxpert)

Whether people accept manmade global warming as real may depend on the weather outside that particular day, a new study finds.

Social scientists have been puzzled over the disconnect between solid evidence showing that humans are causing the planet to warm and public acceptance of these findings, which seems to waver. (Poll: Are Humans Causing Global Warming?]

Weather and climate

The study results suggest that because global warming and climate are complex and long-term trends, people may be more likely to grasp onto a simpler, more easily accessible explanation — the weather.

"Global warming is so complex, it appears some people are ready to be persuaded by whether their own day is warmer or cooler than usual, rather than think about whether the entire world is becoming warmer or cooler," Ye Li, a postdoctoral researcher at the Columbia Business School's Center for Decision Sciences, said in a statement. "It is striking that society has spent so much money, time and effort educating people about this issue, yet people are still so easily influenced." 

Li, the study’s lead researcher, added that this would be analogous to a person looking in his or her wallet to make a call on how well the economy is doing.

In fact, weather extremes, such as droughts and heat waves or walloping winter storms, tend to stir questions of climate, with skeptics questioning why they are digging themselves out of feet of snow in a supposedly warming world. (The World's Weirdest Weather)

However, climatologists explain that pinning climate change on a single event makes no sense, since climate includes the weather over the long term.

Research last year showed that about 75 percent of Americans accept human-caused global warming, a number that was down from 84 percent in 2007. Those researchers attributed the decline to perceptions of recent weather changes by those who are skeptical of climate change.

Swayed by the weather

In the new study, the researchers first surveyed 582 U.S. and Australian participants who reported how convinced they were "that global warming is happening," and how much they "personally worried about global warming." Participants also indicated how much colder or warmer the weather was from normal for that time of year.

"People who thought the current day's temperature was warmer than usual were more likely to believe in and worry about global warming than people who thought the current day’s temperature was colder than usual," the researchers write in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science. For those who said the weather was either "much colder" or "much warmer" than usual, there was a 1-point difference on a 4-point scale in both belief and concern about global warming.

The team used a statistical model to figure out whether a person's views of global warming affected their ratings of temperature (perhaps these individuals are more attuned to the weather) rather than the other way around. Results showed that wasn't the case, suggesting temperature was causing the beliefs and concerns about global warming.

To find out whether these swayed beliefs affected behavior, the team had a different set of 251 participants answer the same questions as in the study but also indicate whether they'd donate some of the fee awarded for participating in the study to the Clean Air-Cool Planet, an organization focused on finding and promoting global warming solutions.

Sixty-three percent of participants who rated the day as much warmer than usual donated money, with an average donation of $2.04, whereas just 24 percent of participants who rated weather as much colder than usual donated, with the average donation being 48 cents.

The researchers interpret the results as suggesting people in general use an easily accessible judgment (current weather) instead of a more complex and less accessible one (global temperature trends) when thinking about climate change.

You can follow LiveSciencemanaging editor Jeanna Bryner on Twitter @jeannabryner.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.