hurricane sandy aftermath

Extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy may make people think differently about the implications of the planet’s changing climate.

While climate takes place over much longer periods of time than weather people can still perceive it with some level of accuracy.  A range of recent studies have shown that climate knowledge can spread through communities within a number of different settings.  Indigenous communities for example, many of whom live most of their lives outdoors, likely experience changes in climate much differently from people who spend most of their time indoors within more controlled settings (see Making indigenous voices on climate change heard).

The context of climate change is important for communicating its impacts on the planet and society.  If climate change science can’t relate to people’s everyday lives it makes it seem less important, even though we may have only a small glimpse of what climate change actually means for the planet as a whole and the flora and fauna that inhabit it.

In many cases people’s ideas about climate change may come primarily from the mass media, but to see this problem of climate communication as the responsibility of the media alone seems rather unrealistic.  The fact remains that most media organisations have their own values embedded within their respective institutions and they normally succumb to market demands, rather than social or cultural values that are much wider ranging and long-term including those of science.  Reportage of climate change is often influenced by political orientation especially for publications that give ‘climate scepticism’ equal footing with scientific consensus on climate change.

climate scepticism media chart1

Percentage of number of media articles containing sceptical voices on climate change 2009-10. Environment Research Letters

So called ‘climate sceptics’ often receive as much if not more attention in mainstream press and broadcasting than scientists who actually study climate change, particularly in the US and UK.  But similar to other pressing global problems such as over population, food shortage and energy supply, sometimes the problem is actually bigger than the science that attempts to understand it.  It is people’s perception of climate change that will play a large if not the largest role in mitigation and adaptation efforts, but this isn’t necessarily without some degree of scientific thinking.

Modelling is often used to convince, but sometimes what is far more convincing is good old-fashioned empirical observation, something that science cannot live without and perhaps needs more of.  This is why citizen science and other forms of engagement that have non-experts participate in science, including climate science, are valuable and have an important role to play.

A letter published in Nature (Global perceptions of local temperature change) reviewed a survey that examined perceptions of recent local temperature change of residents from 89 countries in Africa, North and South America, Asia and Europe, representative of 80 percent of the world’s population.  What they found was most interesting and supports previous work in this area.  For example, individuals can perceive and adapt to local climate and environmental change without meteorological data.

How do they manage?  Through the very things that people have been using for generations prior to the brave, new technological world we live in today, namely personal experience of climate through observations of plants and animals and other forms of environmental change.  After all isn’t this what many scientists do anyway although in a much more sophisticated and technical way using advanced instrumentation?  If you want to understand the changes taking place in the world you live in, observe and if possible record them.

The survey asked one simple question to a 2007-08 Gallup World Poll: Over the past five years, would you say that the average annual temperatures in your local area have gotten warmer, colder, or stayed about the same?’

Of the 91,000 respondents polled 73 percent thought that local temperatures were warmer than five years ago.  In every country included in the poll 60 percent of respondents reported warmer temperatures.

‘Above the 1 °C threshold all countries had greater than 60% of respondents reporting that temperatures had gotten warmer’.

Technology reveals things about nature that otherwise could not be known and enhances human perception, there is no denying this.  But local experiences of climate change could assist not only efforts to adapt, but can influence individual mitigation behaviour and policy support.  Public opinion about climate change appears to shift with personal experience.  But what is the causal relationship between climate change and what people experience?  This is far more difficult to answer, but may be obtainable with more data on people’s long-term experiences of climate.  While this is certainly useful for understanding how to develop adequate policies for addressing environmental change due to climate, it also shows that people’s experience of climate in the short-term is much more likely to incite changes in behaviour than changes that are likely to take place in the longer term.

References and Further Reading

Global perceptions of local temperature change. Nature

Scales of perception: public awareness of regional and neighbourhood climates. Climatic Change

Cross-national comparison of the presence of climate scepticism in the print media in six countries, 2007–10. IOP

Making indigenous voices on climate change heard. IHRR

Are climate science terms going out of style? IHRR