URI researcher: Weather fluctuations cause people to seek information on climate change

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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?”