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Record-breaking heat days disproportionately influence heat perceptions

Scientific Reports cover.Abstract

From heat waves to hurricanes, tangible weather experiences have been shown to strengthen personal belief in climate change. We ask whether a high temperature day that breaks local heat records—which is a mathematical construct not directly accessible to the senses—has additional impacts on perceptions of worsening heat, above and beyond that of the absolute temperatures. Matching historical heat records to survey data from the United States, we find that each record heat day in a county in 2022 increases perceptions that excessive heat is getting worse, even when controlling for average temperatures, the number of extreme heat days, and demographic factors. Our estimates suggest that exposure to sixteen record heat days predicts roughly the same difference in excessive heat perceptions as between the average Democrat respondent and a political independent. This effect is stronger for populations that are more skeptical of climate science, including Republicans, as well as respondents with weaker beliefs in climate change and more frequent consumption of conservative media. We close with recommendations for media framing of local record-breaking heat events and call for more research on how media outlets cover record-breaking heat.