Perception of extreme weather processed through partisan lens

Experiencing extreme weather is not enough to convince climate change skeptics that humans are damaging the environment, a new study shows.

Political bias and partisan news reporting influence whether people indicate experiencing certain extreme weather events, according to the study involving researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Exeter and University of Texas, working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Strategic use of extreme weather to discuss climate change has three distinct challenges: It must help people to recognize their experience of these events, to overcome their partisan tendencies to contextualize them, and to inform those with less education about links to climate change.

“Another challenge is that climate change tends to not be a highly prioritized political issue, even among those who are very concerned about climate change,” said Ariel Hasell, a lecturer in the U-M Department of Communication Studies.

Americans who live in areas where a variety of extreme events are recorded—floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought—are ultimately no more likely to share the same beliefs about climate change as scientists.

“Extreme weather plays a limited long-term role in forming people’s beliefs about climate change,” said Ben Lyons, a researcher at the University of Exeter and the study’s lead author.

“Instead, their views and beliefs can alter the way they perceive the weather. We have found when an extreme weather event is ambiguous, as with polar vortex and drought, people are more likely to see the event through a partisan lens. If there is gray area, people are more comfortable applying their preferred label.”

The research found that Republicans are less likely to report experiencing a polar vortex, while those exposed to liberal media are more likely.

The weather, however, can be sometimes so extreme that it overshadows personal views, the researchers say. They found that partisanship and media use did not affect the way people in the American Northeast—where the 2014 and 2015 polar vortex events hit hardest—reported the weather they had experienced.

Those who favored liberal news sources such as the Huffington Post or the Daily Show reported experiencing drought more often than national weather data would suggest they actually did.

“Very extreme weather accompanied by constant media coverage is harder for people to deny,” Lyons said. “But on the other end of the scale, droughts can take longer to have an effect, so people have some difficulty perceiving their onset and this may allow them to bring their biases to the table.”

The researchers surveyed 3,057 people in the United States to ask them about the extreme weather they had experienced over a five-year period. Participants were asked where they live and if they believe in climate change, human causation and the scientific consensus on the matter. The experts were then able to compare these answers to official weather reports for that region for the same time period.

Data about the weather was taken from the Storm Events Database compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service. The data included droughts, floods, tornadoes and hurricanes.

Nearly 22 percent of respondents reported experiencing a polar vortex, 41 percent a drought, 20 percent a tornado, 29 percent a flood and 17 percent a hurricane in the past five years. However the data shows that 21 percent lived in a county where a flood was recorded over the time period, 25 percent a tornado, 4 percent a hurricane and 4 percent drought.

About 59 percent of respondents agreed that “there is solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades.” Of respondents who agreed with this statement, 74 percent agreed that Earth was warming mostly due to “human activity such as burning fossil fuels.”

“This research shows people’s perception of extreme weather can be processed through partisan lenses,” Lyons said. “This means efforts to connect extreme events with climate change may do more to rally those with liberal beliefs than convince those with more conservative views that humans are having an impact on the climate.”

Natalie Jomini Stroud, a researcher at the University of Texas, also co-authored the study, which is published in the journal Environmental Communication.

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