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Dec. 1, 2014

Politics, not severe weather, drive global-warming views

Scientists have presented the most-comprehensive evidence to date that climate extremes such as droughts and record temperatures are failing to change people’s minds about global warming.

Instead, political orientation is the most influential factor in shaping perceptions about climate change, both in the short-term and long-term, said Sandra Marquart-Pyatt, a Michigan State University sociologist and lead investigator on the study.

“The idea that shifting climate patterns are influencing perceptions in the United States – we didn’t find that,” said Marquart-Pyatt, associate professor of sociology. “Our results show that politics has the most important effect on perceptions of climate change.”

The researchers ran more than 100 computer models integrating just over a decade of Gallup survey responses on climate-change perceptions with 50 years of regional climate data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The 12-page study, which appears in the journal Global Environmental Change, includes a 42-page appendix of data from analyses producing about 800 parameters to support the findings.

Some previous studies suggested temperature patterns do, in fact, influence perceptions about global warming, but none measured climatic conditions as comprehensively as the current investigation. Past research often considers a two-day window or a particular community and a single measure of temperature, not an expansive sweep of multiple climate measures as the authors of this study do.

The study analyzed climatic storm-severity measures used by NOAA – temperature, drought, precipitation and wind velocity – from all 50 states in combination with the 11 years of public opinion data. “This gives us the pulse of the nation,” said Marquart-Pyatt.

While advocates of global warming reduction efforts hope that experience with a changing climate will eventually convince the public of the reality and seriousness of the problem, the current findings do not bode well for that scenario.

Given this expansive treatment of the issue, there is “little grounds for optimism,” the study says, “that public concern about climate change will be driven by future climatic conditions.”

Marquart-Pyatt’s co-authors are Aaron M. McCright and Thomas Dietz of MSU and Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University.