Fingerprints of global warming on public perceptions and beliefs

Open Access
Howe, Peter D.
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 08, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Brenton Yarnal, Dissertation Advisor
  • Karl Stephen Zimmerer, Committee Member
  • Frank Hardisty, Committee Member
  • Janet Swim, Committee Member
  • human-environment geography
  • climate change
  • global warming
  • public perceptions
  • spatial analysis
This research focuses on two main questions: how do people perceive climate change at the local scale, and how do local climate conditions relate to beliefs about global warming? To investigate these questions, the research conducts three studies of data from representative national and cross-national surveys in combination with local climate data. An additional outcome of the research is a novel methodology for character-izing spatial climate data within political units that accounts for the uneven spatial distribution of population. The first study examines perceptions of local temperature change using nationally representative survey data from 89 countries. The second study explores perceptions of seasonal temperature and precipitation in a representative sample of U.S. residents. The third study analyzes beliefs about global warming among repre-sentative samples of residents of 27 European Union member states. The results of these studies provide new evidence that individuals are capable of perceiving local climate change over time, as represented by changes in average temperature and precipitation. In addition, the research provides evidence that cognitive biases are likely to influence both local and global climate change perceptions. These biases include relying too heavily on recent information (recency) and making intuitive judgments based on easily accessible pre-existing beliefs (motivated reasoning and attribute substitution). The main findings of this research show that public perceptions are responding to changes in local climate consistent with global warming. Global warming will increasingly expose human popula-tions around the world to extreme weather events that fall outside the range of recent experience, and this research suggests that the public is likely to become more engaged with the issue as they continue to experience the evidence of a warming climate.