The extreme weather that comes with climate change is becoming the new normal, so normal that people aren’t talking about it as much – and that could make them less motivated to take steps to fight global warming, according to new research.
Researchers analyzed more than 2 billion social media posts between 2014 and 2016. What they found was that, when temperatures were unusual for a particular time of year, people would comment on it at first. But if the temperature trend continued and there were unusual temperatures again at that time the following year, people stopped commenting as much.
The authors of the study, published in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, believe that this is a sign that because of memory limitations and their own expectations and biases, humans may not be the best judges of temperature change. The experience of weather in recent years, rather than over longer historical periods, determines the baseline that people use to evaluate the current weather.
It’s the “boiling frog” effect, an urban legend about an experiment that involves putting a frog in a pot of boiling water, where it quickly jumps out. But if it’s put in a pot of tepid water on a stove and the heat is gradually increased, the frog will stay in the pot until it dies, because it doesn’t feel a difference until it’s too late.
In other words, people may not recognize the signs of human-caused climate change until it’s too late.
“I think it is quite surprising how quickly the effect of these temperatures decline,” said study co-author Frances Moore, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis.
Moore said she doesn’t think people are adapting to e extremes. They’re still “pretty miserable” in extreme heat or extreme cold, but they stop talking about it on social media, and that’s a concern.
“People will be worse off if they stop talking about it,” Moore said. “People’s memories are short, compared to the time scale of climate change. We need to be aware of the disconnect when we communicate about climate change.”
The disconnect could be bad news for those who want to motivate leaders to do something about it. Officials could also be adjusting to the “new normal” and not feel the urgency needed to create policies necessary to stop what’s causing climate change.
“This is a very interesting paper and an interesting approach,” said John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, who researches cognitive science but who was not involved in the new research.
He doesn’t believe that the study’s conclusion is wrong, but he says it conflicts with the data his colleagues have been collecting.
Surveys from the center have found a growing awareness and concern about climate change and the climate change people are seeing in their own communities.
Cook would love to find out what where the disconnect is.
“This is catnip for scientists,” he said.
Cook adds that research has shown that weather affects people’s reaction to climate change, but that’s mostly those in the middle of the political spectrum. With Democrats, there is a high level of acceptance and concern about climate change. With Republicans, it’s lower.
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“You would think with Twitter, it would more likely be on the partisan end of the spectrum,” Cook said. “This is definitely a great study, and there are a lot of ways to explore this further to understand the disconnect between the survey data and Twitter behavior.”
Moore hopes people will use her work to shape how they communicate with the public about climate change.
“We need to be aware,” she said. “We experience climate change in this noisy way. In some places in the country, there is a lot of variability. Just because it feels cold, that doesn’t mean climate change isn’t happening. We should be able to communicate to help bridge that divide.”