Conservation news

Study finds people apt to shrug off extreme weather as normal

  • A new study published Feb. 25 that tracked Twitter posts on weather-related topics has found that people are quick to accept unusual weather as normal.
  • The researchers calculated that we humans set our baseline for what we consider normal weather from what we’ve experienced in just the past two to eight years.
  • The authors of the study write that, as people get used to wilder swings in temperature and other weather patterns, they might be reticent to find ways to deal with climate change or even see it as a problem.

Climate research has demonstrated that the overall warming of the planet is leading to a jump in extreme weather. High temperatures have risen even higher than they’ve typically been, of course. But temperatures are also dropping below historical lows in some places, and more storms are being churned up (despite the apparent unwillingness of some public figures to see these trends as linked to climate change).

Now, a new study tracking weather-related Twitter posts has found that people are quick to accept unusual weather as normal.

“We are experiencing conditions that are historically extreme, but they might not feel particularly unusual if we tend to forget what happened more than about five years ago,” Frances C. Moore, an assistant professor of environmental science and policy at the University of California, Davis, and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

That could potentially throttle the acceptance that Earth’s climate is actually changing, leading to roadblocks for potential solutions aimed at reversing climate change or allowing us to adapt to it, Moore and her colleagues write Feb. 25 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A storm builds off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“There’s a risk that we’ll quickly normalize conditions we don’t want to normalize,” she said.

The team sifted through more than 2 billion tweets from the Twitter feeds of nearly 13 million users posted between March 2014 and November 2016, looking for weather-related words, including “snowmageddon,” “scorching” and some 250 others. The tweets’ geolocation data clued the researchers into how different temperatures lead users to post to their feeds.

Several technologies made this study possible. Advances in computing power have enabled scientists to model future climate based on centuries of disparate data. Better analyses of “big data” have allowed us to search enormous databases for specific terms and associate words with the time and geographic location at which they were written.

Finally, rapidly advancing artificial intelligence tools enable researchers to associate search terms or comments with the writer’s intentions, through a technology called “sentiment analysis.” Sentiment analysis recognizes human emotions in data, particularly textual data. This capacity makes it a useful tool for a business to research how people feel about its products, competitors, or market trends.

It also helps social scientists research how people react to weather, based on the words they choose in their tweets, and generate trends in underlying feelings about climate over space and time.

A geocolor image from NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite of a powerful U.S. East Coast storm on Jan. 4, 2018. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Unusual temperatures indeed tend to instigate social media chatter — at least at first. But over a period of years, if those same temperatures that were once considered unusual kept recurring, they found that people tweeted about it less. Moore and her colleagues calculated that our baseline for what we consider normal weather is what we’ve experienced in the past two to eight years.

The study also used “sentiment analysis” to reveal that colder cold or hotter hot temperatures elicited negative feelings.

“We saw that extreme temperatures still make people miserable, but they stop talking about it,” Moore said. “People seem to be getting used to changes they’d prefer to avoid.”

That’s why, she said, the normalization was “a true boiling-frog effect.” The analogy of a frog placed in a pot of water that’s then gradually heated up is a common metaphor — though the authors point out that it’s apocryphal as it’s not strictly tethered to reality — to understand humanity’s relationship with climate change. The slowly warming waters for the frog might get uncomfortable, but it gets used to it, unlike a frog that’s chucked into a pot of already-boiling water.

A storm approaches the island of Maui in Hawaii. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The frog can’t, however, adapt to anything approaching boiling temperatures, and thus eventually cooks in the water.

The authors note that, as people settle in to the world’s altered weather patterns brought on by a changing climate, they might be reticent to find ways to deal with the issue or even see it as a problem, since their frame of reference is based on a set of memories that only go back a few years. And that’s reflected in their quieter Twitter feeds.

“But just because they’re not talking about it,” Moore added, “doesn’t mean it’s not making them worse off.”

Banner geocolor image from NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite courtesy of NOAA (Public domain). 

Citation

Moore, F. C., Obradovich, N., Lehner, F., & Baylis, P. (2019). Rapidly declining remarkability of temperature anomalies may obscure public perception of climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201816541.

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