Research & Insights

No Small Talk: How Discussions About Weather Reveal Our Political Affiliations

As rule, Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on a lot, but surely the one thing you’d expect there would be no argument about is the weather.

Don’t bet on it.

According to a study conducted by sociologists Aaron M. McCright (Michigan State University), Riley E. Dunlap (Oklahoma State University) and Chenyang Xiao (American University), a person’s political affiliation affects how he or she perceives changes in weather.

For their study, the researchers compared weather data for 2012 with findings from a national Gallup Poll also taken that year. In 2012, the United States experienced its fourth warmest winter on record. The Gallup Poll asked 1,000 people whether the winter in their state was warmer than average and whether they considered the higher temperatures to be evidence of climate change. The respondents were also asked about their personal beliefs on climate change, their political identification and whether they believed the scientific community had widely accepted the theory of global warming.

Although both Democrats and Republicans lived through the same winter, the opposing parties could not agree whether the winter was unusually warm. Instead, the researchers found “Democrats…more likely than Republicans to perceive local winter temperatures as warmer than usual.”

Views on the science of climate change mattered, too. People who agreed there was a scientific consensus on climate change were more likely to say the winter of 2012 felt warmer than average. “The more respondents perceive scientific agreement on climate change and the more they believe in…human cause, threat, and seriousness of global warming,” the researchers explain, “the more likely they report local winter temperatures to be warmer than usual.”

“Given the politicization of climate science and political polarization on climate change beliefs in the U.S.,” McCright, Dunlap and Xiao note, “it is not surprising that attribution of warmer-than-usual winter temperatures to global warming is filtered through partisan and ideological lenses.”

The study’s findings have important ramifications for communicators working on the climate issue. As Dunlap told The Washington Post’s Chris Mooney in an interview in November, “If you can’t reach the committed conservatives on the fact that a significantly warmer season might be due to anthropogenic global warming…I think it’s going to be really hard to convince them that the current situation is due to anthropogenic climate change.”

Nature, November 2014

Aaron M. McCright, Michigan State University
Riley E. Dunlap, Oklahoma State University
Chenyang Xiao, American University

Posted: December 30, 2014
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