Dipping temperatures like those experienced over the weekend in Northern Utah may also be chilling action on global warming.
A study released this week found local weather events influence beliefs in climate change. People living in places that experience record low temperatures are less likely to think the planet is warming, even though far more record highs are being broken each year than record lows. Ogden, for example, experienced its hottest and driest summer in 2016.
“But the climate is a complex, variable system. So we still see cold weather and extreme cold temperatures in a few places around the world,” said Peter Howe, an assistant professor of Human-Environment Geography at Utah State University and a co-author of the study. “In those places where there are still cold temp records being broken, people tend to me more likely to doubt global warming is happening.”
Howe and researchers with Boston University, The George Washington University and the University of Oxford published the analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, Dec. 19. The study compared local climate station data with county-level surveys on attitudes and beliefs about global warming.
The researchers found areas with record low temperatures since 2005 reduced the number of people who believe global warming is happening by up to 4 percent. That number might seem small, but Howe said it’s significant.
“When looking at public opinion, even small changes can have large results, especially when we’re dealing with questions where the public is divided,” he said.
Climate change is the result of building greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By the year 2100, it’s expected to raise average global temperatures by 0.5 to 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As worldwide temperatures go up on average, however, there will be more extremes in highs and lows, too. That’s why drawing conclusions on global trends based on localized weather can be problematic.
Howe’s past research with Yale University found Utah residents’ beliefs in climate change fall close to the national average — 60 percent of Utahns think its happening versus 63 percent nationally. Forty-five percent of Utahns think climate change is caused by humans, compared to 48 percent nationally.
“It’s a complex issue to understand. It happens over a long period of time over the entire globe in various ways and through various manifestations,” Howe said. “Scientists call this a ‘wicked problem’ ... it requires solutions implemented across the world by everyone and that makes it a challenge.”
Political affiliation is one of the top predictors of a person’s attitudes about climate change, Howe said.
With a president-elect set to steer the nation’s climate policy who has repeatedly questioned the validity of climate change based on local weather events, Howe offered some advice.
It’s snowing & freezing in NYC. What the hell ever happened to global warming?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2013
“I’d encourage the president-elect to consider the broader context of climate change ... For example, we’re seeing high temperature records broken much more often than low temperatures broken — 2016 is looking like it’ll be hottest year on record, just like 2015 before that,” he said. “It’s important to look at global context.”
Howe encourages all Americans to look at the global climate context, too, not just what’s happening at home.
“I’d encourage media, when reporting about climate change, to talk about local situations in other places as well,” he said. “One low temperature record doesn’t mean the place where you live isn’t warming if you look at long-term trends.”