Scientists Explain Why You Won’t Be Changing the Minds of Climate Deniers This Thanksgiving

Think that living through superstorms, heat waves or lake effect blizzards is enough to convince people that we’re undergoing a period of unprecedented climate change? Think again, say researchers at Michigan State. A new study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, takes up the question of whether extreme weather can change minds where the science doesn’t, and basically comes up empty.

The study focuses on winter 2012, which was the fourth-warmest winter since at least 1895 — meaning it was one of the warmest in the subjects’ living memory. For the most part, people seemed aware that something was off: analyzing data from a March 2012 Gallup poll, the researchers found that respondents acknowledged that the winter felt warmer than usual. The more unusual the weather, the more more likely they were to notice.

Yet only 35 percent of people attributed those warmer-than-usual temperatures to global warming. As you might expect, it all came down to politics: “The more respondents perceive scientific agreement on climate change and the more they believe in the current onset, human cause, threat and seriousness of global warming,” the study found, “the more likely they report warmer local winter temperatures to be due mainly to global warming rather than normal yearly variation.”

As lead author Aaron McCright put it, ”Many people already had their minds made up about global warming and this extreme weather was not going to change that.”

Here’s the most disconcerting part, which Chris Mooney highlights in the Washington Post: people’s political leanings, it seems, didn’t just affect what they thought about climate change. It also affected the way they experienced the weather itself. The stronger people felt about the scientific consensus on and threat posed by climate change, the more likely they were to perceive local winter temperatures as being warmer than usual. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to note the unusual warmth as well.

“It suggests to me that people have begun to filter their fundamental perceptions of what is going on at least partly through a partisan frame,” study co-author Riley Dunlap said.

Depending on your opinion of partisan politics, of course, that may not entirely surprising.

McCright was a co-author on another study released this month in the journal Global Environmental Change — this one used a larger data set and more detailed analysis to arrive at basically the same conclusion: climate extremes, it found, have little influence on people’s opinions of climate change, while political opinions do.

“We searched high and low to find different ways that the climate extremes could impact people’s views of climate change and we found almost nothing,” McCright told the L.A. Times. “We found that, sure enough, political ideology and political party affiliation are the two dominant predictors in our models, which is sort of depressing.”

All this, and there’s a major storm headed for the East Coast just when families are gathering together for Thanksgiving. Even armed with the science (and assuming you make it home), it seems unlikely that you’re going to be able to convince those Fox News-watching relatives of yours (everyone’s got at least one) that severe winter weather not only doesn’t disprove global warming, the two might actually be linked.

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