Researchers Find Link Between Memories of Weather and Climate Change Beliefs

Jun 14, 2016

Think back for a moment to last December. Do you think it was warmer than average? Colder? About average?

A new study suggests that your answer to that question may depend on a few factors, such as whether or not you believe in climate change or how many kids you have. By the way, December was warmer than average—much warmer, with temperatures shooting nearly 14 degrees above the average.

Larry Hamilton is a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He is co-author of the study, along with Mary Lemcke-Stampone. He joined NHPR's Peter Biello to discuss his conclusions. 

What correlation did you find between a person’s belief in man-made climate change and his or her ability to estimate whether December was warmer than average?

It’s not a very strong relationship, but it’s a difference of about 14 points across the scale of different answers on a climate change question. About 70% of people who believe human activities are changing the climate also recall December was warm. It goes down from there, depending on whether you believe the climate is changing for natural reasons, or the climate is not changing, or you just have no idea.

And you also asked people whether they thought winter as a whole was colder or warmer than average. Did the studies correlate to what you found about December?

Yes, they were very similar. In fact, the December question was really just serendipity. December happened to be this amazing record, and we right away drafted a question to put on the survey just to see if anyone noticed. But that’s only one survey, and to do an analysis you need more data. So winter turned out to be record-breaking too, so we asked a similar question a couple of months later.

Do you think the study would have turned out differently if December was closer to the average?

About 63% remembered it as warmer than average. And this was by far the warmest December in more than 100 years. It was 14 degrees above the 20th century average. If only 63% remember that, in a year when it was above 60 degrees in New Hampshire on Christmas day, then I expect it would have been lower if it had been any less exceptional.

Your study also found that married people and people with children tended to be better judges of what this particular weather was like in context. What is the connection there?

We weren’t expecting that, but it seemed pretty consistent. My guess would be that it has to do with weather-dependent activities, like skiing, snowmobiling, or skating, or things like school cancellations or simply driving around. Whatever it was, there seemed to be a family component to whether you remembered correctly. People with young kids and married couples were more accurate about the recent warmth.

It’s fascinating also that your study found no difference in the ability to correctly perceive what December was like among men or women and of the various age groups.

That was interesting too. There’s no gender difference, very little age difference (there’s a very slight tendency for the youngest age group to be more aware, which might go with the outdoor activity idea), but those differences are not statistically significant. There’s no gender difference, and the age difference is not significant.

What does this say about the way our beliefs alter our perceptions and memories of the world around us?

It adds to what our research and others’ research has found for a long time: that ideologies and beliefs about the world shape how we perceive even physical reality. Very often you ask these questions about long-term or large-scale things. We’ve found that peoples’ ideology informs what they believe about the Arctic Ocean, where most of them have never been.

But also if you ask if New Hampshire winters are warming over the last 30 years—the answer to that would depend very much on ideology. What we didn’t know until we tried this was that it could act over a period of just a few weeks, over something as extreme as the warmest December in history.

What did you find most fascinating about the study?

It sort of confirmed what we expected, but it’s bad news. We’ve seen this sort of thing with long-term temperature trends and with beliefs about the Arctic Ocean and the earth’s atmosphere. We’ve seen political and ideological constructions about their beliefs about the physical world. And it was a fascinating but unhappy discovery that it operates on a very local and short-term level. The question itself doesn’t ask anything at all about climate change; it just asks was it warm last month.