How our not-so-polar winter polarized Republicans, Democrats on climate change

Photo by Ralph Barrera

This past winter was the warmest on record in Austin, a remarkable period during which more than a quarter of the days at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport topped 80 degrees. (!!!) Such an unusual winter was lovely but, in the context of global climate change, naturally raised the question of what to make of it.

A recent study suggests Democrats and Republicans see such weather quite differently – and that such weather tends to make them double down on their natural inclination to accept or reject climate science.

The study, “Is it hot in here or is it just me? Temperature anomalies and political polarization over global warming in the American public,” found that “political polarization over global warming is more pronounced in states experiencing temperature anomalies.” The study was conducted in 2013-14, so it doesn’t take this winter into account. And some findings will not exactly surprise Texans.

Yes, the research confirmed, conservatives are generally leery of climate science, liberals generally accepting its conclusions – and it may all be the media’s fault.

Researcher Jeremiah Bohr of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh did unearth some potentially interesting findings, though. Chiefly, unusually hot or cold weather intensifies one’s predisposition toward climate science: “Republicans are less likely to conform to the scientific consensus on global warming during very cold or very warm periods while Democrats display the opposite trend.”

Bohr also found that, among Republicans, skepticism of climate science is a uniting force that grows stronger as the temperature diverges from the norm. In a typical year, moderate Republicans tend to be less inclined to reject climate science than their tea party peers. But during unusual weather, warm or cold, the views of the center-right and the right converge. (Perhaps it could even bring House Speaker Joe Strauss and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick together.)

Per Bohr: “… we see that both kinds of Republicans converge in their global warming beliefs during extreme temperature anomalies but diverge during more seasonable temperature conditions.”

Bohr also found that media framing could feed the political hardening of opinion during weirdly warm or cold seasons. During those seasons, climate science tends to get more coverage. (Hi, everybody!) And the coverage, Bohr wrote, tends to be filtered through the lens of how liberal or conservative an outlet is, “discount(ing) or affirm(ing) temperature anomaly as an indication of global warming.”

“This,” Bohr continues, “could plausibly explain why disagreement between Democrats and Republicans widens during periods of greater temperature anomaly, as Democrats are likely exposed to greater amounts of opinion within the scientific mainstream while Republicans are likely exposed to disproportionate amounts of climate contrarian messages.”

(Commence jabs at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in 3, 2, 1 … and now, on to the American-Statesman in 3, 2, 1 … can someone lend me a very tiny violin?)

For what it’s worth: Climate scientists say that seasons like this past winter are not, in and of themselves, proof that the planet is warming and that man is contributing to that warming. But state Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said this winter’s temperatures are in line with a long-term warming that Texas has been experiencing since the 1970s, a time Nielsen-Gammon said was unusually cool. University of Texas climate researcher Kerry Cook told the American-Statesman that this winter was also the kind of winter Central Texans can expect more of – along with more extremely hot days, drought and sudden deluges.

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