The Climate is Changing, But People Draw Conclusions From Local Weather

Climate change is upon us.  The recent National Climate Assessment, assembled by a large scientific panel, confirms that greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.  The planet is warming. The West Antarctic ice sheet is doomed. The seas have begun rising.  And more extreme weather will plague our future. 

Alas, most of the American public is not yet alarmed about this weapon of mass destruction.  The 31 percent who in 1998 thought “the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated” increased to 42 percent in 2014.  And the 34 percent of Americans who in 2014 told Gallup they worry “a great deal” about global warming was essentially the same as in 1989. 

Part of the problem is what psychologists and their students know as the availability heuristic. Our judgments get colored by mentally available events and images. And what’s more cognitively available than slow cli­mate change is our recently experienced local weather (see here and here).  Local recent temperature fluctuations tell us nothing about long-term planetary trends. (Our current weather is just weather.) Yet, given unusually hot local weather, people become more accepting of global climate warming, while a recent cold day reduces people’s concern about climate warming and overwhelms less memorable scientific data.  Snow in March?  “So much for global warming!”

 After Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey, its resi­dents’ vivid experience of extreme weather increased their environmentalism.  This suggests that a silver lining to the tragedy of more droughts, floods, heat waves, and other extreme weather may, in time, be increased public concern for climate change.  In the meantime, to offer a vivid depiction of climate change, Cal Tech scientists have created an interactive map of global temperatures over the last 120 years.