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Heat Makes Believers of Us All

Posted by Sarah Laskow  October 10, 2012 05:36 PM

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drought photo cropped.jpg

The latest survey from Yale and George Mason Universities of American attitudes towards climate change just came out, and it's unusual. The two universities have been jointly tracking Americans' beliefs about climate change since 2008, and for much of that time, American's concern about global warming has dropped or stayed low.

But after the hot summer of 2012, the survey found that more Americans than ever think climate change is tweaking the country's weather, and agree that the resulting weather is bad. The drought over the summer, the weirdly warm winter, the balmy spring, the destructive forest fires, and those strange June thunderstorms—all of these events, in Americans' minds, were made worse by global warming.

There's a strange and frustrating tension about the connection between climate and weather. Science finds it extremely difficult to tie any particular event to climate change. But people's perceptions make the leap quite easily, for better or worse.

One of the only studies to link a particular weather event to climate change came out just about a year ago and showed that climate change caused a heat wave in Russia in 2010. The researchers ran a temperature simulation over and over again, first without the influence of global warming factored in, then with it added in. They found, in the end, that the record-high temperatures Moscow experienced had a one in five chance of happening in a world without climate change.

It's pretty likely that Muscovites were living in a climate-impacted world that summer. (And by extension, so were the rest of us.) But what a pain to prove! If you had asked a Muscovite about climate change that summer, though, she should have been more likely to tell you she was a true believer.

Researchers have found not only that the weather can shore up belief in global warming but that just sitting in a hot room can have the same effect. You feel hot, so all of sudden global warming seems more plausible. It's totally irrational, and it means that the groundswell of good feeling for climate science that Yale and George Mason document may only last until the first unusually deep snowfall this winter.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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