The influence of national temperature fluctuations on opinions about climate change in the U.S. since 1990

Abstract

Public opinion in the United States about human-caused climate change has varied over the past 20 years, despite an increasing consensus about the issue in the expert community. Attitudes about climate change have been attributed to a number of factors including personal values, political ideology, the media environment and personal experience. Recent studies have found evidence that the temperature can influence one’s opinion about climate change and willingness to change behaviour and/or support climate policy. Although there is some evidence that individual cool or warm years have influenced large-scale opinion about climate change, the extent to which temperature can explain the past variability in public opinion and public discourse about climate change at the national level is not known. Here we isolate the relationship between opinion about climate change and temperature at the national scale, using data from opinion polls, a discourse analysis of opinion articles from five major daily newspapers, and a national air temperature database. The fraction of respondents to national polls who express “belief in” or “worry about” climate change is found to be significantly correlated to U.S. mean temperature anomalies over the previous 3–12 months. In addition, the fraction of editorial and opinion articles which “agree” with the expert consensus on climate change is also found to be significantly correlated to U.S. mean temperature anomalies at seasonal and annual scales. These results suggest that a fraction of the past variance in American views about climate change could potentially be explained by climate variability.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by a NSERC Discovery Grant and a UBC AURA Award.

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Correspondence to Simon D. Donner.

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Donner, S.D., McDaniels, J. The influence of national temperature fluctuations on opinions about climate change in the U.S. since 1990. Climatic Change 118, 537–550 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-012-0690-3

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Keywords

  • Climate Change
  • Climate Variability
  • Temperature Anomaly
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Polling Question