Americans' opinions on climate change blow with the wind—with more concern shown in years that are much warmer or much colder than normal—according to a new study released Tuesday.
Five of the nation's top newspapers were also more likely to publish opinion pieces that showed "belief" in climate change during years that were colder or warmer than normal. Previous studies have suggested that people are more likely to believe in or "show worry" about global warming when the weather is particularly bad, but the study, published in the journal Climatic Change, is the largest to date and uses data from 1990 to 2010, a much longer time period than previous studies.
"I'm not surprised by the results judging by how pervasive these opinions were in the polls," says study author Simon Donner, of the University of British Columbia's department of geography. "I think certainly on a public understanding of science issue it's a problem. Even if the planet is warming, we're going to have cold years."
Donner says that newspapers were more likely to publish opinion pieces about climate change during heat waves in an attempt to make the connection between day-to-day weather and climate. Climate change is not a "breaking story," according to Donner.
"It's easier for someone to get something published that's skeptical about climate change during a cold spell because it has a good hook," he says. "But newspaper editors and opinion columnists need to trust what scientists are saying—climate doesn't change on a day-to-day basis."
The study also shows that most Americans aren't steadfast in their opinions on climate change, whether they are a believer or a skeptic. Donner describes a "large swath in the middle" whose opinion is malleable depending on the weather.
"It means what people are learning isn't going very deep," he says. "If you had a fundamental feeling for the issue, your opinion wouldn't change with the weather."
Though the world has seen a steady trend of increasingly hot years, public belief in climate change, at least in the United States, has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade, though most recent polls (taken during one of the hottest years on record), seem to show that many Americans are starting to see global warming as an important issue. With 2014 expected to be a bit cooler due to La Nina, Donner says those gains in public acceptance and worry may change.
"Maybe it'll be enough to knock back some of the progress that's been made," Donner says. "Scientists need to get used to being on offense more to make people realize this is an everyday issue—we can't get into the habit of only talking about it during the heat waves."