SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Americans are more likely to search online for information about climate change when they experience unusual or severe weather in their area, a University of Rhode Island researcher has found.
“When local weather conditions are consistent with the predictions of climate change – above average heat, drought or warmer winters, for instance – then people go online and type in ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ to learn more,” said Corey Lang, URI assistant professor of environmental economics. “It’s a confirmation that people are connecting weather anomalies to climate change.”
Lang analyzed Internet search trends and weather patterns using Google Trends to collect data on how often people in 205 media markets searched for terms like “climate change” and “global warming” between January 2004 and May 2013.
While search activity increased during weather fluctuations consistent with climate change predictions, it also increased in some areas during weather unrelated to climate change, Lang said.
“One possibility is that when weather is inconsistent with climate change, climate science deniers go online in higher numbers seeking to confirm their prior beliefs,” Lang said. “It’s also possible that weather anomalies of any kind spark people to think about weather and climate. We can only speculate about their reasons.”
Findings also differed based on the searchers’ political ideology and education levels. For example, Democratic-leaning regions and those with higher education levels were more likely to seek information about climate change when average summer temperatures rose above normal, whereas those in Republican and less-educated areas searched forclimate change information when they experienced extreme heat.
While Lang said it is difficult to draw sweeping conclusions based only on Internet search data, it is a good sign that people from all regions and backgrounds are making the connection between weather fluctuations and climate change, he said.
The results of Lang’s research were published last week in the scientific journal “Climatic Change.”