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Results vary by political ideology, education levels
KINGSTON, R.I. – July 16, 2014 – A University of Rhode Island researcher analyzed Internet search trends and weather patterns and has concluded that people across the United States seek information about climate change when they experience unusual or severe weather events in their area. But findings differed based on political ideology and education levels.
“When local weather conditions are consistent with the predictions of climate change – above average heat, drought or warmer winters, for instance – then people go online and type in ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ to learn more,” said Corey Lang, URI assistant professor of environmental economics. “It’s a confirmation that people are connecting weather anomalies to climate change.”
His results will be published this week in the journal Climatic Change.
Lang used Google Trends to collect data on how often people in 205 media markets searched the Internet for terms like “climate change” and “global warming” from January 2004 to May 2013. While search activity increased during weather fluctuations consistent with climate change predictions, it also increased in some areas during weather events inconsistent with climate science.
“One possibility is that when weather is inconsistent with climate change, climate science deniers go online in higher numbers seeking to confirm their prior beliefs,” Lang said. “It’s also possible that weather anomalies of any kind spark people to think about weather and climate. We can only speculate about their reasons.”
When Lang compared search data in regions of the country with differing political views and education levels, his results suggest that some groups may see climate change differently. For example, Democratic leaning regions and those with higher education levels were more likely to seek information about climate change when average summer temperatures were above normal, whereas those in Republican and less educated areas sought climate change information when they experienced extreme heat.
“When it’s just a warmer than usual month, more Democratic and well educated areas are picking up on that signal, but it’s a spike in temperature over one or more days that Republican and less-educated areas are keying in to climate change,” Lang said. “It may suggest that different types of people have different perceptions of what kind of weather defines climate change.”
The URI economist said that it is difficult to draw sweeping conclusions based solely on Internet search data, since it is impossible to know the motivations of individuals conducting the searches. But he said it is a good sign that people from across the geographic, political and education spectrums are making the connection between weather fluctuations and climate change and are seeking more information about it.
“There isn’t this intransigence that is often played up,” he said. “It’s much more dynamic.”
The next step in Lang’s research is to learn what happens after people search for information on climate change.
“There are a lot of open questions about what these results mean,” he said. “What are people doing with this information? Are they purchasing energy efficient appliances? Are they taking measures to improve their situation in the face of the changing climate? Self-motivated information seeking is a good first step, but what do they do next?”
What do Google searches tell us about our climate change fears?
Political ideology, education levels affect when people search for climate information
Republicans search the Net for information about the weather, climate change and global warming during extremely hot or cold spells. Democrats google these terms when they experience changes in the average temperatures. These are some of the surprising findings from a study by Corey Lang of the University of Rhode Island in the US, published in Springer’s journal Climatic Change.
He tracked how the temperature fluctuations and rainfall that Americans experience daily in their own cities make them scour the Internet in search of information about climate change and global warming. To do so, he used data from Google Trends, local weather stations and election results.
Google Trends aggregates all Google searches that are made, and measures how popular a specific search term is. Users can fine tune this to be specific to a particular place (such as a country or city) and time (such as monthly or on a specific date). Lang specifically checked how often, when and where citizens in 205 cities in the US used the search terms “global warming,” “climate change” and “weather.” The terms “drought” and “flood” were also included because increases in these natural phenomena are important predicted impacts of climate change. Monthly statistics were collected for the period from January 2004 to May 2013. Lang then matched them with local weather station data, as well as the 2008 presidential election results in Dave Leip’s “Atlas of Presidential Elections.”
Lang found that search activity increased when extreme heat was felt in summer, when no rain fell over extended periods, and when there were fewer extreme cold snaps in winter. Such weather fluctuations are consistent with projected climate change. Interestingly though, searches also increased when average winter and spring temperatures dropped – events that are inconsistent with global warming. Lang believes this could mean that people who observe unusual extreme weather conditions are genuinely interested in learning more about climate change. It could, however, also mean that deniers, who experience an unusually cool winter, go online to confirm their skeptical views that the world is not really growing warmer.
People from varying political and educational backgrounds reach for their devices at different times to check out information on climate change. Republicans and people from less educated areas do more relevant searches during periods of extreme temperatures, while Democrats and residents of well-educated areas do so when they experience changes in average temperatures.
“Weather fluctuations have an impact on climate change related search behavior, however not always in ways that are consistent with the impacts of climate change. And the research suggests that different types of people experience weather differently or have different perceptions about what type of weather defines climate change, ” concludes Lang.
Reference: Lang, C. (2014). Do Weather Fluctuations Cause People to Seek Information about Climate Change? Climatic Change. DOI 10.1007/s10584