With extreme weather comes extreme political opinions: A recent study finds that Americans’ attitudes toward climate change are increasingly polarized when subject to unseasonable temperatures.
“What I’m finding is that, in unusually warm months or unusually cold months, Democrats become even more adamant that there is a connection between human activity and global warming,” says Jeremiah Bohr, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh and lead author on the study. “Republicans get more adamant and reject the connection a little bit more.”
Bohr collected data concerning Americans’ global warming beliefs from four CBS/New York Times surveys administered between February of 2013 and May of 2014.
Participants were first asked to identify with a political party. Next, they were asked whether they thought global warming is an environmental problem with serious immediate implications, global warming’s effects won’t be felt until well into the future, or global warming won’t have serious effects at all. Participants were also asked which statement aligns most closely to their global warming views: Global warming is caused mostly by human activity such as burning fossil fuels, global warming is caused mostly by natural patterns in the Earth’s environment, or global warming does not exist. This data was merged with state-specific monthly temperature averages from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Temperature anomalies were measured by calculating the difference between temperatures for the month of the survey with the preceding five-year average of corresponding monthly temperatures. All four months examined in this study are moments when various regions throughout the United States experienced temperatures five degrees above or below regional average temperatures.
Results offered a correlation between temperature anomalies and moderately heightened polarization over global warming attitudes: Republicans are less likely to attribute global warming to human activity during very cold or very warm periods, while Democrats display the opposite trend. The effects are more dramatic for Democrats.
“It wasn’t at all surprising to see the political polarization and how it correlates with the temperature anomalies,” Bohr says. “Democrats and Republicans will experience the exact same winter, and come away with opposite conclusions. The way that our partisan identity shapes even the way that we experience the natural world is what I find so fascinating about all of this.”
Bohr speculates this trend is due to the media — more specifically, the “media bubbles” people self-select that only serve to affirm their pre-existing beliefs. A 2016 study supports this: Researchers found that partisan media has a powerful role in reinforcing opposition or support of climate change action.
“I’m a little bit perplexed about what sort of conclusion to come to with this. There seems to be an indication that no amount of fact is going to bring us closer together,” Bohr says. “We have to find a way to collectively talk about global warming.”
Unfortunately, it looks like our polar ice caps will continue melting as we become increasingly polarized.