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Extreme Weather Won't Convince Climate Skeptics

People are very good at incorporating contradictory information into their belief systems.
Dry, cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake Mead is seen near Boulder Beach on May 13th, 2015, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.

Dry, cracked earth that used to be the bottom of Lake Mead is seen near Boulder Beach on May 13th, 2015, in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada.

It often seems like climate denial has a logical end: Once the Earth's climate systems become unpredictable—or at least undeniably weird—everyone will be forced to accept our planet's new reality. For environmentalists and science communicators, that's potentially useful: The images of skinny polar bears and melting glaciers that represented climate change to the public for decades were emotional, but not personal. So as extreme weather starts to affect land past the poles and scientists have grown more willing to connect it with climate change, many groups have attempted to use those events as learning opportunities. However, a new study says that these events have little real impact on people's beliefs about the climate.

A survey of 3,000 United States adults showed that previous climate beliefs affected how people self-reported extreme weather experiences, like droughts and "polar vortex" disturbances. The study, published last week in the journal Environmental Communication, asked participants if they believed the Earth was warming (59.2 percent said yes), if they believed the cause was human activity, and if they believed there was strong scientific consensus about it. Then it asked them to self-report their experiences with extreme weather and compared their responses with National Weather Service data for their areas.

It turns out unprecedented weather isn't the teaching moment environmental advocates hoped for. Respondents indicated if they had or had not experienced a severe weather event, like drought or flood, in the last five years—but much of the time, their recollections didn't match up with objective measures. People who consumed liberal media like HuffPost or The Daily Show were more likely to say they'd experienced drought, even if the data showed that their communities hadn't. Their Republican counterparts, meanwhile, under-reported experiencing extreme weather, including the polar vortex of 2014 and 2015. Consumers of conservative news were also less likely to believe climate change was linked to the extreme cold of the polar vortex.

More typical weather events, like tornadoes and hurricanes, don't appear to be subject to the partisan bias that more unprecedented events are. These also get less dramatized media coverage; hurricanes on the coast and tornadoes in the Midwest are more expected.

When faced with dramatic, unprecedented weather, "people are more likely to see the event through a partisan lens," Ben Lyons, Ph.D., the lead author on the study, said in a press release. "If there is grey area, people are more comfortable applying their preferred label." Plenty of research shows that people are good at incorporating new, seemingly contradictory information into their previously existing beliefs about the world, especially when those beliefs are linked to their sense of identity—as politics often are.

Still, some events are so dramatic they break through partisan thinking: The polar vortex recollections of respondents from the Northeast—which received the worst of the snow and ice those years—weren't predicted by their political orientation.

According to the researchers, if extreme weather can galvanize anyone, it's probably liberals who feel generally apathetic about climate change policy. Plus, the lack of partisan split around the polar vortex in the Northeast shows that extreme weather can, to some degree, affect belief: "It's important to note that we take a big-picture look rather than focus on specific events," Lyons said. "Particularly intense events—a 100-year flood or catastrophic hurricane—might be most capable of influencing attitudes."