It’s the Weather, Stupid

By Michael Baker

It turns out that the American public’s belief in climate change is on the rise, up to 62 percent – up from 52 percent in 2010, though not quite back to its November 2008 high of 71 percent.

The conventional wisdom is that fluctuations in Americans’ willingness to buy into climate change are indirectly related to the economy.  When the economy slumps, as it did in Fall 2008, discussions about scientific issues are pushed aside and the public just plain quits caring about climate change; as apathy regarding climate change goes up, the belief that it’s a valid theory goes down.  Makes sense, right?

But a look at actual weather trends suggests that the economy and prevalent political discussions have little to do with it.  In fact, Americans’ belief in climate change increases when the weather actually gets nuttier.  Hence the increased willingness to believe during this wet hot American Summer.

There are two ways of thinking about that data.  The first is that the general public is unscientific for looking to short-term changes in weather patterns to make up its fickle mind about climate change.  This Slate article does a fair job of making that case.  But I prefer a different stance – that it’s a good thing to see America’s view of climate change influenced by weather.  After all, what could be more rational than linking observed changes in the weather to changes in the climate in general?  Sure, as a society we may lack a firm understanding of the hard scientific support for climate change, but it’s refreshing to see that The Weather Channel (if that thing still exists) is more likely to affect people’s thoughts about climate than Fox News.  I must admit, I typically err on the side of giving the general public less credit than that.