Evidence of climate change and global warming is everywhere. Seldom can one turn on the news without seeing reports of rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, extreme weather, and the acidification of our diverse oceans. When President Elect Donald J. Trump proudly declared that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, educated citizens reacted with notions of incredulity. When his supporters came out in droves defending the “hoax,” we all reacted with shock and horror.
How can so many individuals ignore readily available facts that are unequivocal? Researchers at Utah State University set out to uncover why exactly individuals can throw away decades of scientific evidence. Peter Howe, an assistant professor of human-environment geography at the University’s Department of Environment and Society collaborated with researchers from Boston University, George Washington University, and Oxford University. The researchers based their data from more than 12,000 survey respondents across the nation, as collected by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication from 2008 to 2014.
“We found that places with more record high temperatures than lows have more residents who believe the planet is warming,” reported Howe. “Conversely, in places with more record low temperatures, more people tend to doubt global warming.”
Northern states were found to have a lower percentage of residents believing in climate change, including North Dakota with only 56% of inhabitants agreeing that global warming is a tangible problem. The states with the highest proportion of surveyed adults agreeing that global warming exists, unsurprisingly, were Hawaii and California with 75% and 70% of yes votes respectively. States in the middle portion of the United States reported statistics between those high and low percentages with Missouri coming in with 60% of occupants agreeing that climate change exists, North Carolina with 62%, and Colorado with 66%.
This coincides with multiple tweets from the President Elect who commonly cites snow and freezing temperatures in winter as evidence against the science of climate change. People who do not experience warmer temperature frequently are more stubborn to believe that the planet is warming. Individuals rely more on anecdotal and personal experiences when forming opinions, and because weather is experienced on a daily basis, everyone thinks they are an expert. How can global warming be real when I am freezing in North Dakota all the time?
“One of the greatest challenges to communicating scientific findings about climate change is the cognitive disconnect between local and global events,” added Michael Mann of George Washington University. “It’s easy to assume that what you experience at home must be happening elsewhere.”
So how can entities living in colder areas be convinced of the ravages of our warming climate? The key, according to scientists, is in our phrasing.
It is first important to differentiate the concept of weather, the temperatures of an area over a relatively short period of time, and climate, the average temperature of an area that occurs during a period of 25 or 30 years. Sure it may be freezing and snowing now, but is it less cold than the winters you remember from your childhood?
Secondly, word choice comes into play when discussing the changing phenomena themselves. If one lives in an area far from the equator experiencing record low temperatures, then global warming is a discouraging term. However if propositioned with the phrasing climate change, some naysayers may change their tune. While they may not be able to recollect changing temperatures, they may be cognizant to supplementary environmental changes such as an increase in rainfall, smog, or storm occurrences that are also symptomatic of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Researchers are optimistic that adapting the dialogue when discussing climate change can encourage positive discussion about the fate of our planet.
“Our work highlights some of the challenges of communicating about climate change, and the importance of situating people’s experiences at the local level within the larger global context,” Howe cemented.
In his final presidential address, Barrack Obama echoed the importance of universal acceptance of climate change while also lamenting that action is more important than collective agreement. “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change,” he remarked to an audience of 24 million television viewers. “They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”
With this study showing that only 63% of Americans believe in climate change due to their inability to look beyond their own location, it is best to heed President Obama’s advice to go forward and combat the insidious effects head on. There will always be people who say racism doesn’t exist because they live in a white neighborhood, abortion is unnecessary because they live in the Bible belt, and that 9/11 was enacted by the government because they live in their parents’ basements clad in tin foil hats. Climate change is not about convincing people that there is a problem, but about combating the problem while there is still an earth standing.
You can read more about Dr. Howe’s research and his maps on climate change opinion at: http://www.peterhowe.org