Americans are dramatically polarized in many regards, but when choosing the top wedge issue, climate change makes a strong case. More people are at odds about global warming than evolution, abortion, and gun control, and researchers want to know why.
Recent survey results offer a window into the influences governing views on global warming and whether or not human behavior is to blame. For more than two years, researchers at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) have been collecting random sample interviews to determine what people think, and why they think it.
According to researcher and UNH Sociology professor Lawrence Hamilton, the study considers factors such as age, education level, and sex, but results overwhelmingly point to political affiliation as the most reliable identifier.
“What people believe about sea ice is predicted by their politics,” Hamilton said. “People aren’t just slightly convinced one way or another—you get pretty adamant views about this.”
There is slight variation, of course, but by and large, Democrats are more likely to align their views with those supported by major scientific institutions—the Earth is getting warmer and it is because of people. Republicans and their knowledge base, meanwhile, oppose this view and remain especially suspicious of it in regard to policy changes.
The polarity of opinion at political extremes is an interesting observation, but not much of a surprise. What really grabbed the researchers’ attention was the middle-of-the-road group.
“I knew perfectly well that there would be severe polarization between Democrats and Republicans,” said Hamilton. “But what we saw in this poll for the first time was Independents behaving in a qualitatively different manner, rather than just being in between.”
The survey found that Independents’ opinions were guided largely by the weather, and Hamilton said that the shift is dramatic. As the title of the report jokes, the Independent outlook on global warming is literally “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
When study interviewers called participants on unseasonably cool days, Independents mostly did not believe that climate change was caused by human behavior. On unseasonably warm days, however, Independents said that humans were directly responsible.
Hamilton said that the effect of weather on the beliefs of Independents is not something researchers were looking for, but the trend is clear.
“It only affects Independents, and that’s a pretty robust finding in our data,” he said. “It’s still to be seen whether that’s going to replicate with people asking different questions, in different data sets, and in different times and places. But it’s really robust in ours, and we’ve got about 5,000 interviews.”
Smaller studies have shown similar effects—Hamilton mentions psychology experiments where students answered climate change questions differently when a window was left open in the testing room—and UNH researchers are keeping a close eye on the phenomenon. Hamilton is curious to see if answers might change following natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
It may seem strange that daily temperature would have such a profound effect on just one group, but according to Hamilton, much of the standard polling literature already supports the trend.
“It is full of all these discussions about the low-information Independent voters who make up their mind at the last minute about who they’re going to vote for,” Hamilton said.
“Certainly not all Independents are like that. There are thoughtful, hardworking Independents who are trying to balance the issues. But there’s a segment there, and the polling literature talks about this a lot, who are just flipping back and forth,” he said. “Those folks are important because they actually determine who’s going to be the president.”
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