As different as weather is from climate, these two concepts are often used interchangeably in everyday language. At the end of the day, they are both descriptions of atmospheric behaviors, aren't they? According to NASA, the key difference between weather and climate lies in the different time scales on which they operate. Weather refers to the atmospheric condition over a short window period of time (hour, day, week), whereas climate is the accumulation of weather over an extended period of time. Geographic scale can add another layer of distinction to this. Weather usually covers a relatively limited area while climate over a large region.
One of the fundamental challenges facing climate scientists and science communicators is how to effectively communicate long term changes in the atmosphere (climate change) to the public who may confuse climate with weather. As rational as we may wish to be, our minds are actually prone to many mental heuristics and biases (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). For instance, when being asked about long term changes in hurricane strength - "do you think hurricanes have become stronger?"- coastal residents are more likely to take into account their observations of characteristics of the most recent hurricane landfall such as maximum wind speed and storm surge, rather than the actual trend of hurricane strength over the recent past (Shao et al. 2016). This is classic illustration of availability bias, referring to the mental tendency to turn to the most accessible and retrievable events (Tversky and Kahneman 1974).
The seemingly clear conceptual delineation between weather and climate can be blurred if entering extreme weather events. Scientists are now taking on a big task to disentangle specific extreme weather events and climate change. Whether or not Louisiana's Epic Flood (2016) is a direct product of climate change may be still subject to debate. Scientists nevertheless can say that climate change is certainly driving up the frequency of extreme weather events, essentially making 1000-year (the chance for an event to occur in any given year is 1 in 1000) or 500-year events become 50-year or 10-year events. When people start to see the overall pattern that extreme weather events have become the new norm across the globe, hopefully it will make the case of climate change more convincing and scientists' communication less challenging.
Shao, W., Xian, S., Keim, B. D., Goidel, K., & Lin, N. (2016). Understanding perceptions of changing hurricane strength along the US Gulf coast. International Journal of Climatology.
Tversky A, Kahneman D. 1974. Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Science 185(4157): 1124–1131.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is in deep debt, owing billions of dollars to the U.S. Treasury after monstrous Hurricane Katrina (2005), Super Storm Sandy (2012), and Louisiana Epic Flood (2016). This program was first passed by the Congress in 1968, with the initial intention to entice coastal property owners to join this program by providing subsidies. In doing so, the premiums paid by property owners are distorted and do not fully reflect the real flooding risks they have to deal with. The misleading price signal unintentionally encourages property developments in risky areas, such as the Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA). In anticipation of rising seas and stronger coastal storms, rebuilding efforts seem to be on the path to further drive NFIP off the cliff.
Purchasing flood insurance may relieve financial burden for home owners after a big storm hits. With the deeply troubled NFIP, it is sensible for home owners to think of alternatives. By utilizing original survey data merged with contextual data on flood risks, my coauthors and I have investigated the determinants of coastal residents' support for two adaptation policies: incentives for relocation and funding for educational programs for emergency planning and evacuation (Shao, et al., 2017). The major finding of this study is that perceptions of flood-related risks plays an essential role mediating the contextual flood risks and adaptation policies. The contextual risks, indicated by distance from the coast, maximum wind speed and peak height of storm surge from the last hurricane landfall, and percentage of high-risk flood zone per county, do not directly exert influence on policy support. Instead, these contextual risks impact one's adaptation policy support through risk perceptions. This finding implies the significance of risk perceptions and highlights the need for effective and accurate risk communication.
Shao, W., Xian, S., Lin, N., and Small, M. J. 2017 "A sequential model to link contextual risk, perception and public support for flood adaptation policy." Water Research. doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2017.05.072
France just elected the youngest person ever to rule that republic. This French presidential election has historical meaning. Since "Brexit" and the 2016 US presidential election, the western world has been at the crossroad, with "globalists" who advocate globalization via free trade and open border and "nationalists" who resist globalization constantly being involved in the tug of war. Anti-globalization sentiment handed nationalists two substantial victories in 2016. Nationalism seemed to be on a path to erode the western democracy by riding a wave of popularity. Now, the French presidential election put the temporary brakes on this movement.
Globalists may feel a sense of relief now, but this tug of war is not going away any time soon. As a matter of fact, a war over Paris Accord between these two factions is unfolding in the White House.
Before March for Science, there was a debate about whether politicizing science would jeopardize scientists' reputation for being objective in their scientific pursuits. Early evidence suggests that the march did drive liberals and conservatives further apart on their views towards scientists. Whereas, their views toward science (research scientists conduct) have remained immune to change by this kind of publicity.
The concern for politicizing science is not without legitimate reasons. The scale of issues like climate change transcends personal experience with the immediate environment. Public understanding of this kind of issues thus hings upon multiple information sources. Unfortunately, scientists' peer-review articles are quite elusive for laymen to digest and they often stay behind pay walls. The media and others try to bridge the scientific community and the public, with journalists and others taking on the responsibility of translating scientific findings for the mass. With the third party being involved, things can get even more complicated. For instance, one principle called "balance" commonly adopted in journalism is intended to project a "fair" and "objective" image (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004). Guided by this principle, journalists in practice would interview one scientist whose view represents the majority's and one scientist whose view reflects the minority's. By doing so, both are given equal time on the air or space on the paper. Through this process, any scientific consensus would be perceived as "unsettled" by the receiving end.
Scientists are human beings and can make mistakes. The public trust in scientists is indeed found to be a powerful factor of converting knowledge about global warming into risk perceptions of this issue (Malka et al. 2009). My research demonstrates that people who believe that scientists make positive contribution to the well-being society are more likely to accept anthropogenic global warming (Shao et al. 2016).
Scientists are also perceived to have their own political ideologies whether or not this is the case for each individual. One of the implications of accepting human-caused climate change is governmental intervention, which is more in line with liberal worldview. It is therefore not surprising to see some critics perceive that climate change is "exaggerated (at best) or manufactured (at worst) by liberal scientists to force environmental action on the American political system" (Shao et al. 2016, 8). We actually found that "individuals who perceive that scientists are liberal are less likely to perceive that global warming is generated by human activity. This is in keeping with the perception held by some individuals that scientists are an ideological liberal group and that their findings are tainted by ideological bias" (Shao et al. 2016, 15).
Scientists really need to walk the fine line between pursuing scientific knowledge and helping the public understand scientific issues more accurately. If not done delicately enough, the public will dismiss scientists' work as "alternative facts."
Boykoff, M. T., and J. M. Boykoff. 2004. “Balance as Bias: Global Warming and the U.S. Prestige Press.” Global Environmental Change—Human and Policy Dimensions 14:125–36.
Malka, A., J. A. Krosnick, and G. Langer. 2009. “The Association of Knowledge with Concern About Global Warming: Trusted Information Sources Shape Public Thinking.” Risk Analysis 29:633–47.
Shao, W., Garand, J.C., Keim, B.D., Hamilton, L.C. 2016. "Science, scientists, and local weather: understanding mass perceptions of global warming." Social Science Quarterly. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12317
The New York Times's hiring of conservative journalist Bret Stephens has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. In his first column, he seemed to attribute the current American public division on this issue to climate advocates' certitude of our climate future. Despite climate advocates' aggressive campaigns, climate change is still a lukewarm issue among most Americans, as he insisted in this column. Gallup's most recent survey actually shows that American public concern for climate change has arrived at all-time high. To conclude, he suggested that less certitude of climate change may be more conducive to reasoned conversations.
His argument actually runs counter to the true landscape of climate politics. Back in 2000, sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap documented the conservative movement's counter-claims to challenge global warming as a social problem. They concluded that, "the conservative movement asserted that, while the science of global warming appears to be growing more and more uncertain, the harmful effects of global warming appears to be growing more and more uncertain" (McCright and Dunlap, 2000; 499). In other words, the gap between the scientific community and the American public on climate change is more likely to be due to the claims of scientific uncertainty by the relentless conservative movement than the certitude of climate change claimed by advocates and other progressives. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway retold the chronology of an extremely small group of scientists who by using their personal prestige and normal scientific uncertainty effectively cast doubt on a series of scientific findings from tobacco's detrimental effects on public health to present human-caused climate change. Scientific uncertainty, not certitude, is the major barrier to getting everyone on board.
Another false speculation made by Mr. Stephens is about American public belief in scientific consensus on human-cause climate change. He attributed American indifference to climate change to "the science is settled." As a matter of fact, according to a recent Pew survey, only 27 percent Americans perceive a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.
Belief in a scientific consensus is a very powerful predictor of perceptions of climate change, as my own research demonstrates (Shao et al. 2016). Individuals who think that most scientists agree with one another on climate change are much more likely to believe in human-caused climate change. One of the conclusions my coauthors and I drew from this finding is that, "from a positive perspective, advocates of global climate change can direct their efforts toward the establishment of positive images of scientists, and this may serve to make their research conclusions more convincing and acceptable to the public. The bad news is that any event such as 'Climategate' or a careless paragraph about Himalayan ice melting could lead to mistrust of scientists’ findings on global warming. Due to what global warming skeptics purport to be mistakes made by some climate scientists, the entire scientific community—and the case for anthropogenic global warming—is still recovering from the adverse effects of these perceived missteps" (Shao et al., 2016; 18).
In their book, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote, "Doubt is crucial to science - in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism, it drives science forward - but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved" (Oreskes and Erik, 2010; 34).
McCright, A.M. and Dunlap, R.E. (2000). "Challenging global warming as a social problem: An analysis of the conservative movement's counter-claims." Social Problems 47 (4), 4999-522.
Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Erik M. (2010). Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Bloomsbury Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-59691-610-4.
Shao, W., Garand, J.C., Keim, B.D., and Hamilton, L.C. (2016). "Science, scientists, and local weather: understanding mass perceptions of global warming." Social Science Quarterly 97(5), 1023-1057.