A new study finds that the surprising answer is “yes.”
That authors of the study used data from about 8,000 poll responses, obtained between 2008 and 2011. The surveys included questions about how people perceived the weather in recent years. For temperatures, they were asked whether they were higher, the same, or lower than in past decades. Similar questions were asked about the frequency of floods and droughts. The survey also asked for self-assessments of political leanings, and included several questions that got at core ideological beliefs (such as egalitarian or individualist tendencies).
Things were completely different for temperatures. In fact, the actual trends in temperatures had nothing to do with how people perceived them. If you graphed the predictive power of people’s perceptions against the actual temperatures, the resulting line was flat—it showed no trend at all.
And those cultural affiliations had about the effect you’d expect. Individualists, who often object to environmental regulations as an infringement on their freedoms, tended to think the temperatures hadn’t gone up in their area, regardless of whether they had. Strong egalitarians, in contrast, tended to believe the temperatures had gone up.
The authors conclude that climate change has become perceived as a form of cultural affiliation for most people: their acceptance of it is mostly a way of reinforcing their ties to the political and ideological communities they belong to. And, since temperatures have become the primary thing the public associates with climate change, people now interpret the temperatures through a filter based on their affiliations, a process termed “cultural cognition.” In other words, we tend to interpret the temperatures in a way that reinforces our identity, and our connections with others who share similar political persuasions.
At the moment, however, this same sort of politicization hasn’t occurred with things like droughts and floods, even though changes in precipitation are one predicted outcome of climate change. However, given the attention to the ongoing droughts in much of the country, this may only be true for a very narrow window.