Are public attitudes to climate change as fickle as the weather?

Australia storm Much of the debate on long-term climate change can be obscured by notions drawn from short-term weather

Public attitudes in the developed world to the reality and the causes of climate change have tended to ebb and flow over the past few years.

A survey carried out for the Pew Research Centre in the US in 2012 concluded that the belief that the Earth's temperature is rising was down 10% from 2006 at 67% of responders.

Pew found 42% agreed with the statement that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, down five points in the last six years.

Start Quote

You regularly see even the best science communicators tie themselves up in knots about the relationship between weather and climate because it is just really subtle”

End Quote Dr Adam Corner Cardiff University

In the UK, public opinion has fluctuated as well. A YouGov survey from last summer indicated that 43% believed that the world is becoming warmer as a result of human activity. That's down from previous surveys. The percentage of those who said they were not sure about the answer increased to one in five respondents.

Researchers have tried to work out what's been affecting the figures - they looked at events such as the so-called ClimateGate affair in 2009 and found that it had a significant impact on public faith - a BBC poll in 2010 showed that scepticism was on the rise as a result.

But apart from this anomaly, pollsters have struggled to explain the variation in the figures.

Knee-jerk reaction

Now a new piece of research on opinion in the US published in the journal Climatic Change suggests that the public's response to the great scientific issue of the day is often determined by the state of the weather. The study, carried out by the University of British Columbia, looked at public and media attitudes to climate science over the past 20 years.

They found that scepticism rose during cold snaps, but belief in global warming increased during hot spells.

Prof Simon Donner who carried out the analysis told me that it wasn't quite as simple as that.

"It is not just a knee-jerk reaction - 'Oh it's cold outside, global warming must be fake', it is the accumulated experience over a few months that makes you start to question things, and it is that accumulated experience that makes things start appearing in the papers," he said.

Chile power station Perceptions of climate change in developing countries are connected to concerns about economic development

He argues that in the US, climate issues have become highly politicised and it is hard to separate these political leanings from people's views on the science of climate.

Scientists in the field have also made matters worse, according to Prof Donner.

"We go on offense during a heat wave and then we lie low the rest of the time and don't talk about it. During a cold spell, the only time you hear from climate scientists in the newspapers is when we are refuting things - we need to be consistent and talk about this regardless of the weather," he said.

In the UK, a YouGov poll in January suggests that people here are almost evenly split on the link between weather events and climate change.

Dr Adam Corner from Cardiff University, who is also a consultant with the Climate Outreach and Information Network, says that scientists taking about individual meteorological events is dangerous.

"You regularly see even the best science communicators tie themselves up in knots about the relationship between weather and climate because it is just really subtle.

"It does cut both ways, it allows people to say, 'Oh it's been cold locally, that must mean temperatures are not rising'," he said.

While it might appear on some level a little odd to have your views on climate change shaped by weather patterns, Dr Corner says that there is some reason in this view.

"In some senses, it is exactly what you should be basing it on over time, because we're not meteorologists and apart from the things we get told, the things going on around us are going to provide more of a steer," he added.

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Matt McGrath Article written by Matt McGrath Matt McGrath Environment correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Weather is a creation where as Climate is a by product of Man's activity to live on Earth that negatively affects Weather pattern . It is just like polluting spring water with chemical. Until Science & Techniology come with an answer climate change will bring negative out comes to Mankind & Government Leaders should focus on the solution & not use Weather for Political campaign

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Evidence on the internet.

    1) Extreme green sites using emotional language and predicting disaster.

    2) Science sites describing the evidence - and the uncertainties.

    3) Sceptic sites discussing the evidence - and the uncertainties.

    4) Sceptic propoganda sites using emotional language and attacking the scientists as often as the science.

  • Comment number 154.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Funny how it's climate when it's hot, but weather when it's not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Polls have nothing to do with whether the climate is actually changing.

    Such questions are decided on evidence, not opinion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    26.Alive alive
    11 Hours ago
    Fools Die

    Being an atheist, I didn't recognise the biblical based passage you quoted. Couldn't stop smiling when I put it into google and the top result was a lyrics by peter TOSH.

    Tosh seems such an appropriate term for chlimate change denialists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    " It is well known and documented why Eric the Red called it Greenland."

    Forgive my ignorance not knowing why "eric the red named it.
    But at the time he named it, it was warmer than it is now (or similar), and even warmer a century before that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    I watched the programmes made by the BBC about the Earth's orbit and what happens as a year progresses .I gnashed my teeth when , as everything was being explained and making a LOT of sense about weather and how the Earths orbit and tilt affects things , bl**dy "climate change" was mentioned almost at the end of a particular episode . ARRRRRRRRRGGGHHHHHH !

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
    Carl Sagan

    The public confuse popular opinion with science, some however, wish to deceive.

    It doesn't matter how many times they [the deniers] are told of their mis-represention they still persist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    146 BLACK_PEARL - You've obviously been looking in the wrong places then. Or perhaps deliberately not looking at all in case you find something you don't want to see.
    For one, 2010 was predicted to be the hottest year on record. And it was.
    As was the continued increase in temperatue, which is still happening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    143.Drunken Hobo
    138 - I think that says more about your character than the scientists'
    What a realist ?

    Cant think of one 'modeled' forcast statement on the climate from scientists & climate quangos thats come to pass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    It is well known and documented why Eric the Red called it Greenland.
    If you really wanted to know you could find out in about 30 seconds.

    You would discover that Greenland has been covered in ice for at least 25 million years and even if the ice had miraculously melted for a few years beneath it is just bare rock.
    Eric found two tiny sheltered fiords on the same latitude as The Shetlands

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    " The global average temperature is increasing. How else does ice melt?"
    Ice does melt, but it does re-form too though.
    Where did "ice covered" Greenland originally get it's name from?
    Surely ice didn't used to be green.
    I know there are some who'd love everything to be green.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    138 - I think that says more about your character than the scientists'.
    139 - That's nice, but Al Gore isn't a scientist.
    141 - No it isn't. That article says nothing of the sort.
    142 - Newsweek isn't a scientific journal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Scientists back in 1975 were blowing cold wanting to melt the artic of all things...

    Yes its not just the public blowing hot & cold on their opinions
    Opinions appear to be like 'bums' everyone has got one & they're blowing hot at the moment, but may cool later...

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    C02 is now favourable

    Do Scientists minds blow hot & cold with the weather then ?
    (or the cheque book)

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    it's a pity that people confuse Weather with Climate. The global average temperature is increasing. How else does ice melt? More heat in the atmosphere means more energy, more water bearing capacity, more evaporation and therefore more rain. Stalling jet streams and other large scale oscillations are being disrupted by decreasing ocean salinity, and that is making snow in winter. Basic physics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    People who don't want to believe in climate change look out of the window and say,'look it's snowing,therefore it must be getting colder!' Of course that is slightly flippant
    LOL Thats a bit rich... thats what been said about every warmer period & weather event for years now by Al Gore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    The vast majority of climate scientists, especially those who don't receive money from oil companies, are in consensus about man-made global climate change.
    Thats because they receive their livelyhoods from tax payers Govt funding... of coarse they are in a 'consensus' ...
    Would you threaten your job by NOT towing the Company line ?
    Look what happened to Bellamy Wise up....

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    No. People doubt the veracity of CC because it was the UN that thought it up, and a failed American politician who made a fortune out of his scare stories.
    Recently 1953 flooding was on BBC and talked about the floods that occurred then.
    CO2? trees and plants and other life forms live off it, and give off Oxygen in return. That is why it is called the cycle of Life!
    Human progress solves all!


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