Using Google Trends to gauge climate change perception

Climate change is happening. There’s no question about it, despite what some news media outlets would have you believe. To mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change, it is prudent to understand how people learn about climate-related issues in the first place.

Corey Lang is a researcher in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island. He wondered whether local temperature and precipitation patterns, such as extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme drought, or extreme storms, motivated people to learn more about climate change. “As people experience anomalous weather events,” he asks, “do they connect those events to a larger narrative of climate change and choose to learn more?” To do so, he turned to Google search data for each month from January 2004 to May 2013, and matched it to local weather patterns for 205 cities in the continental United States. In addition, he investigated whether search behavior can reveal beliefs about climate change more generally based upon the searchers’ political ideology or educational achievement.

Consistent with earlier research, Lang discovered that search activity for terms like “global warming” and “climate change” increased when summers were particularly hot, when winters were particularly mild, and when there were prolonged periods without rain. Those patterns make a great deal of sense, since they are consistent with projections related to climate change. However, searches also increased when summers were mild or when winters were particularly cold, which is inconsistent with the language of “global warming.” This could simply mean that any unusual weather condition motivates people to learn more about climate change. It might reflect confusion about the predictions related to climate change (some areas will receive more rain, and others will receive less), or about the distinctions between local weather and global climate patterns.

Though all Google users sought ought climate-related information online when they experienced extreme weather events, Lang still found some interesting patterns when he considered demographic differences. Areas that were more Republicans or were less educated showed increases in climate-related Google searches when they experienced extreme temperatures, but only if those temperatures were consistent with the predicted effects of climate change, such as hot summers rather than mild winters. Those who lived in more Democratic areas, or were better educated, instead searched Google for climate-related information in response to changes in average temperatures. They, too, primarily searched when their weather changes were consistent with climate change. “This could indicate that different types of people experience weather differently or have different perceptions about what type of weather defines climate change,” Lang says.

Although there were differences among Democrats and Republicans and among those with higher or lower education levels, it is encouraging that all cities showed some sort of engagement with information related to climate change, at least when their local weather patterns were consistent with the predictions of climate change: warmer temperature, and more extreme precipitation patterns (extended droughts or extreme storms). Additional research could focus not just on what motivates people to seek information related to climate change, but whether they learn and retain accurate information afterwards, and whether they are further motivated to alter their behavior. Can the unlimited access to information afforded by the Internet shape public opinion and increase support for climate change-related policies? Are there tangible outcomes from self-guided education in terms of mitigation or adaptation? – Jason G. Goldman | 23 July 2014

Source: Lang C. (2014). Do weather fluctuations cause people to seek information about climate change?, Climatic Change, DOI:

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