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Detecting local environmental change: the role of experience in shaping risk judgments about global warming


Anthropogenic climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events (e.g. flooding, heat waves, and wildfires). As a result, it is often reasoned that as more individuals experience unusual weather patterns that are consistent with changing climate conditions, the more their concern about global warming will increase, and the more motivated they will become to respond and address the problem effectively. Social science research evaluating the relationships between personal experiences with and risk perceptions of climate change, however, show mixed results. Here, we analyze a representative statewide survey of Floridians and compare their risk perceptions of five-year trends in climate change with local weather station data from the five years preceding the survey. The results show that Floridians are unable to detect five-year increases in temperature, but some can detect changes in precipitation. Despite an inability to detect the correct direction of change, respondents were significantly more likely than not to correctly identify the season in which most change occurred. Nevertheless, compared to local experience, risk perceptions of climate change were more strongly predicted by subjective experiences of environmental change, personal beliefs about climate change, and political ideology. Results from the study suggest that long-term changes in climate patterns and extreme weather events need to be interpreted by weather and climate experts within the context of climate change; individuals cannot be expected to detect or comprehend such complex linkages directly.

Keywords: Climate change, risk perception, Florida, national survey


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