Weather Triggers Searches for Global Warming

By July 23, 2014

Americans have differing perceptions on which weather events are being triggered by climate change, according to a new study that looked at people’s Google searches over a roughly nine-year period.

Using Google Trends—a public tool that shows how often a specific term is entered into the search engine—researcher Corey Lang found that people from all walks of life scour the Internet for information about climate change and global warming when the weather fluctuates. The timing of their searches, however, is dictated by political affiliations and education levels.

According to the study—published in the journal Climatic Change—Republicans and people living in less-educated areas looked for information about the weather, climate change and global warming during extreme cold or hot spells, while Democrats and those living in well-educated communities searched for those terms when there were changes in average temperatures.

“A very rosy interpretation of this is that while these groups may see different elements of climate change or experience weather differently, there is some trigger that is making them seek more information,” said Lang, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island.

Connecting the dots in cyberspace
After collecting information from Google Trends for 205 cities across the United States, Lang analyzed how often and when citizens in each city used the search terms “climate change,” “global warming,” “weather,” “drought” and “flood.”

He then matched monthly statistics for the period January 2004 to May 2013 with local weather station data and the 2008 presidential election results from Dave Leip’s “Atlas of Presidential Elections.” From there, he was able to determine that search activity rose with extreme summer heat, long periods of time with no rainfall and winters with minimal cold spells.

While the aforementioned weather changes are consistent with projected climate change, Lang said he was “surprised” to find out that searches also increased when the weather was not indicative of global warming—such as decreases in average winter and spring temperatures.

“The results could suggest that people link weather anomalies of any kind with climate change or perhaps may involve the engagement of deniers, who experience an unusually cool winter and go online to confirm their skeptical views,” he wrote in the study.

A very telling ‘tool’
Lang’s study, however, is not the first time researchers have turned to Google Trends to analyze society’s perception of climate change.

Earlier this year, researchers William Anderegg from Princeton University and Gregory Goldsmith from Oxford University used Google Trends to determine that the public’s declining interest in climate change was not due to several high-profile climate science controversies (ClimateWire, May 22)

And in May, researchers from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication analyzed Google searches and found that while the terms “climate change” and “global warming” are often used interchangeably, the latter is both more familiar to and more effective with the American public (ClimateWire, May 28).

“Google Trends is an external tool that is really great to see what’s capturing the world’s attention,” said Roya Soleimani, a communications manager at Google. “We’re sharing the information and letting folks or experts discern and analyze the data as they see fit.”

“One of the key motivations for doing this study was to find out if people are engaging in this issue,” Lang said. “And the results say ‘yes.'”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500

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