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Changing with the wind: Bad weather found to shift congressional votes on environment

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Lawmakers are more likely to vote for climate change legislation after freak storms hit their home states or districts, according to a new Harvard University study announced Tuesday that looks at how specific weather events affect the public debate.

While all sides agree that climate change is a long-term phenomenon that is separate from daily conditions that constitute the weather, major storms — or, in places where storms or snow are common, the lack of them — leave many people blaming global warming anyway, according to researchers who tracked people's Google searching.

The correlation extends to Capitol Hill, where the researchers said members of Congress are more likely to vote for environmental legislation after a major storm hits their constituents.

"We find that U.S. congressional members are more likely to take a pro-environment stance on issues and votes when their home state experiences unusual weather and search intensity in their home-state is high," Evan Herrnstadt of the University of Michigan and Erich Muehlegger of the Harvard Kennedy School said in their paper.

The two said there's no evidence that weather affects non-environmental legislation, and said the effects on environmental bills are "modest" in size, and may not change the ultimate outcome of any votes. But they said it is safe to conclude that weather plays a role in determining how members of Congress vote.

The relationship between climate change and individual weather events has long been debated.

In pushing last week for action, President Obama said "no single weather event is caused solely by climate change." But he went on to say that warming does play a role in several specific events he named — such as in Hurricane Sandy, where higher sea levels around New York meant the devastation from flooding was worse.

Mr. Obama also pointed to wildfires in the West last year, and the heat wave that hit Alaska last month, as evidence of how changes might be affecting weather.

The two researchers took data from the National Climatic Data Center to measure weather intensity, then used the Google Insights search index to look at the frequency of searches for "global warming" and "climate change."

They found that unusual weather — whether a strong storm in the summer, or lack of snow in the winter where snow is normal — sent people scurrying to computers to look up global warming.

For members of Congress, the researchers looked at voting records compiled by the League of Conservation Voters and found a correlation — though they shied away from saying weather caused specific changes.

But they did manage to calculate just how tight the correlation was: "Snowfall one standard deviation below the mean during winter months in associated with an 1.5 percentage point increase in the likelihood of voting in favor of environmental legislation."

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