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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Some People’s Beliefs About Climate Change are Blowin’ in the Wind

Posted by jlwile on February 20, 2013

This graph shows the likelihood of New Hampshire residents agreeing with the statement, "Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities" based on party affiliation and the average temperature. The gray fields represent the error associated with the data.
(The graph is from the study being discussed.)

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you probably know that I am skeptical of the idea that human activities are changing climate on a global scale. I don’t think the data support such a notion. Climate is certainly changing, but that’s nothing new. The data strongly indicate that around 1000 AD, the Northern Hemisphere was significantly warmer than usual; this is generally referred to as the “Medieval Warm Period.” About 650 years later, the Northern Hemisphere was significantly cooler than usual, and that period is often called the “Little Ice Age.”1 The important question is whether or not the changes we are seeing today is unusual compared to events such as those. Based on the data I have seen, my answer would be, “No.”

At the same time, I hasten to add that global climate is incredibly complex, and we are not close to fully understanding how it works or even how to measure it in a detailed fashion. Indeed, there are various methods used to determine the “average global temperature” and how it has changed over time, and they each produce different results. So while I think that the data show there is nothing unusual about the way climate is changing right now, I think a lot more study needs to be done.

But what do most people think? When it comes to climate change, their beliefs vary over time. The percentage of Americans who think the earth is warming has been falling since 2007. Interestingly enough, however, there seems have have been a recent rebound, at least when the phrase “climate change” is used. What drives these changes? Are the data changing significantly? Are the proponents of one side “getting their message out” better?

Unfortunately, a recent study has provided insight into why some people change their mind on the climate issue, and the results are rather depressing.

The Granite State Poll conducts telephone interviews with a random sample of about 500 New Hampshire residents four times each year. It asks a variety of questions related to politics, including party affiliation. In April of 2010, it started specifically polling its subjects on climate change. One of the things the poll did was ask each subject whether or not he or she agrees with the following statement:

Climate change is happening now, caused mainly by human activities.

Not surprisingly, results varied over the two and a half years since that statement has been included in the poll.

Lawrence C. Hamilton and Mary D. Stampone wondered if the current weather had any effect on the observed change, so they looked at the average temperature in the state of New Hampshire on the days around which the poll was taken. The depressing results are shown in the graph at the top of the post. In general, those who identify themselves as Democrats are very likely to agree with the statement, and their agreement is not strongly affected by the temperature on the day the statement is made. Republicans, on the other hand, are very unlikely to agree with the statement, and their disagreement is also not strongly affected by the temperature. However, for those who identify themselves as independent, their reaction to the question is directly correlated with temperature: the warmer it is, the more likely they are to agree with the statement.2

Why do I find these results depressing? The study says that those who identify themselves as “independent” make up 18% of the sample. That means roughly one-fifth of the New Hampshire population is not even thinking when it comes to climate change. After all, climate change is a global phenomenon. What is happening in your little corner of the world is not at all indicative of global climate change! In addition, climate change is a long-term phenomenon. Even organizations that promote the concept of global warming typically claim that the past century has seen a rise of less than one degree Celsius. That is such a small, gradual change there is just no way to notice it in the local weather! Thus, the weather on a given day shouldn’t have any effect on a thinking person’s reaction to a statement regarding global climate change!

If we are ever going to come up with sane policies regarding climate change and other scientific issues that affect the general populace, people are going to have to start thinking!

REFERENCES

1. B. Christiansen and F. C. Ljungqvist, “The extra-tropical Northern Hemisphere temperature in the last two millennia: reconstructions of low-frequency variability,” Climate of the Past 8:765-786, 2012 (Available online)
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2. Lawrence C. Hamilton and Mary D. Stampone, “Blowin’ in the wind: Short-term weather and belief in anthropogenic climate change,” Weather, Climate, and Society, http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/WCAS-D-12-00048.1, 2013
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Comments

8 Responses to “Some People’s Beliefs About Climate Change are Blowin’ in the Wind”
  1. Eric says:

    Jay, if this quote is true, I suspect we will never have sane policies:

    “If we are ever going to come up with sane policies regarding climate change and other scientific issues that affect the general populace, people are going to have to start thinking!”

  2. jlwile says:

    Unfortunately, you are probably correct, Eric.

  3. Grace says:

    Your posts need a “share” button.

  4. Cheryll says:

    With no scientific credentials other than being a curious old woman, I am fascinated by your blog.

    I came to this page from The Young, Faint Sun Is Still a Problem. A quote there caught my attention: “the sun is producing more light now (on average) than it did in the past.” Gasp! Can it be?? ‘Global warming’ might actually be a (non-existent) natural phenomenon?!?! ;-)

    That wouldn’t be good news for the politicians who are making a fortune out of manipulating the future of industrialized nations.

  5. jlwile says:

    Thanks for your comment, Cheryll. I am glad that this blog is fascinating to you! While the sun is almost certainly brighter now than in the past due to how the thermonuclear fusion happens in the sun, that specific mechanism can’t be responsible for any “global warming.” It just happens too slowly. After all, the models indicate that 3.6 billion years ago, the sun was 75% as bright as it is today. That means the brightening that is occurring is too slow to be detected in just 100 years or so. Now, there are other processes that change the brightness of the sun, and some of those could be responsible for what is perceived as global warming.

  6. Jacob says:

    I remember in my local town when, in January, the temperature grew to 70˚ for a week. I enjoyed the change in temperature, but not the response found in my local paper. The editorials and articles were packed with pro-climate change bias. Now the temperature is back to 30-40˚ and there is neither sight nor sound of Al Gore speeches anywhere.

  7. Enoch H. says:

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article!

    I think it’s a shame that a scientific issue like this is affected so much based on how much it is used as a political tool.

    Which brings to mind another question. Previously, it seems that the topics for scientific inquiry have developed more or less organically based upon individual scientists’ interests. Now there is the introduction of special-interest groups and funding that changes that. Do you think science is best left organic, or do you think science would benefit by some body which determines the priorities of topics for investigation.

    Finally, what are the biggest specific topics of scientific investigation that you personally place the highest priority on?

    Thanks!

  8. jlwile says:

    Enoch, I think the issue of how the climate is changing did come up organically. Climate has been changing since we started observing it, and scientists have naturally been curious. Now…I think the level of interest in climate change has been affected by politics, but then again, that’s not surprising. Most science in the U.S. is funded with government money. Unless we can find some other way to fund science, I am not sure how to keep it from being affected by politics and special interests.

    I have never really thought about what topics of scientific investigation have the highest priority in my mind. I am interested in a wide range of topics, so I am not even sure I could pick just a few topics to emphasize.

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