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Writing in the journal Climatic Change researchers from Cardiff University have sought discover if people rely more upon the ‘evidence of their own eyes’ above scientific climate research.

Stuart Capstick & Nick Pidgeon asked a nationally representative sample of 500 people for their views on climate change. It has been argued that public doubts about climate change have been exacerbated by cold weather events, seen as a form of disconfirming evidence for anticipated ‘warming’.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 13.45.26 (2) Response distributions: winter 2010 is evidence against climate change.
Source: ‘Public perception of cold weather events as evidence for and against climate change’
Participants were asked what they thought about the exceptionally cold winter of 2010 – the second coldest in 350 years – and if this “suggests climate change may not be happening”.  They found that three times as many people saw this extreme weather as evidence of the reality of climate change, rather than disconfirming it. The research argue this was a consequence of these cold winters being incorporated into a more nuanced conceptualisation of extreme or ‘unnatural’ weather resulting from climate change.

Instead of thinking simply in terms of temperatures rising as the planet warms, the authors suggest respondents’ understanding of extreme weather is that it can be a consequence of humans disrupting the climate system.

The reason for this could be a change in the language used to describe the impact greenhouse gases are having, the authors suggest. They say:

“Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive that cold weather would be integrated in peoples’ perceptions of climate change in this manner, this may be indicative of a general shift in the use of terminology (in the UK at least) from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ “.

The researchers acknowledge that the survey is UK-specific, so the interpretations may not apply elsewhere. They say the term ‘global warming’ is used more frequently to describe climate change in the US than in the UK, so could explain why the US media and public are perhaps quicker to question climate science during a cold snap than their UK counterparts.

A second part of the survey considered the extent to which peoples’ responses were affected by their own climate skepticism. They asked respondents how serious they considered climate change to be, and whether they thought it was influenced by humans. Those more sceptical about climate science were also more likely to see the cold winter as evidence against climate change.

About a third of respondents said the cold weather neither confirmed nor disproved climate change. The authors note in the study:

“[T]his is arguably the most appropriate current response to the items presented given the difficulty in attributing discrete weather events to climate change.”

We’ve always had weather extremes, and scientists can’t say for certain whether a particular event would have happened if the planet wasn’t warming. Instead, scientists tend to talk about how climate change might be increasing the likelihood of events reaching extreme proportions.

Capstick and Pidgeon, 2014 S.B. Capstick, N.F. Pidgeon Public perception of cold weather events as evidence for and against climate change Clim. Change, 122 (4) (2014), pp. 695–708