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60-Second Earth

Cold Outside? Forecast Calls for an Uptick in Global Warming Disbelief

The temperature outside governs most people's response to climate change. David Biello reports

In more than a decade of reporting on climate change I can say one thing with absolute certainty. When it's cold outside, like during this recent polar vortex in the U.S., people start thinking this whole global warming thing must be overblown.

The opposite is also true. Which is why the next summer of El Nino is going to do more for action to combat climate change than any activist or scientific study. Don't believe me? A new social science study in the journal Nature Climate Change backs my anecdotal experience.  

The report describes the so-called local warming effect. This effect is a result of people tending to rely on, quote "less relevant but available information… in place of more diagnostic but less accessible information."

In other words, today's temperature matters a lot more to belief in the problem of global warming than any understanding of how climate change actually works.

The social scientists ascribe such thinking to the fact that a cold spell or heat wave prompts memories of other similar weather events and thus makes one more or less likely to believe in global warming at that moment.

And that means the recent bitter chill of the polar vortex wasn't unusual for prompting climate skepticism. What was really unusual was how many decades it had been since the last deep freeze in the 1990s—and how quickly we forget.

—David Biello

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

[Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.]

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