Sunday, February 19, 2017
Exhibit Hall (Hynes Convention Center)
Benjamin Lyons, Annenberg Public Policy Center, Univ of PA., Philadelphia, PA
Background. Research has shown that local weather fluctuations (e.g., heat waves) can influence beliefs about climate change. However, these effects are typically short-lived, concentrated among those with less education, and not conditional on ideology. This suggests that they are the result of priming attention to immediate personal experience rather than providing new information leading to enduring belief changes. Extreme weather events may also influence the public’s beliefs. These events provide higher-quality evidence than variation in local temperatures because climatologists have explicitly connected them to climate change in recent years. Therefore, experiencing these events may shift beliefs by way of more effortful, rather than heuristic, processing. Longer-lasting changes that are more pronounced among the highly educated, and subject to motivated reasoning, would provide evidence of this account. Methods. Using previously unpublished survey data from the Pew American Trends Panel (N = 3057), this study examines how experiencing extreme or prolonged weather events – polar vortex or drought – relates to beliefs about the Earth getting warmer, anthropogenic causes of climate change, and the scientific consensus about climate change. Results. Logistic regression models show that having experienced a polar vortex increased the odds of believing that the Earth is getting warmer, that humans are responsible, and that there is scientific consensus. Likewise, experiencing drought increased the odds of believing in warming and consensus. The effects of experiencing these weather conditions on beliefs about warming and causation were greater among more liberal respondents. In addition, polar vortex’s association with warming and consensus beliefs increased with education, contrary to prior findings. Conclusions. Like local temperature fluctuations, experiencing a polar vortex or drought event may influence individuals’ climate change beliefs. But because climate change beliefs increased with education and liberal ideology, the evidence suggests that extreme events affect beliefs through effortful rather than heuristic processing. These effects also appear to be less subject to decay than those relating to temperature fluctuations. Although ideology stands as an impediment, this finding offers room for science communicators to make an enduring impact on beliefs by making explicit connections between extreme events and the existing consensus regarding Earth’s changing climate.