The winds of change? Extreme weather events and public opinion on climate change

 Sep 18, 2017    by Meaghan Guckian

World renowned climate scientist, Michael E. Mann, recently co-authored a Washington Post article titled, ‘Harvey and Irma should kill any doubt that climate change is real.’ This is a sentiment likely shared amongst those most familiar with the influence of rising sea and air temperatures on extreme weather, or those who are generally just concerned about climate change.

The emphasis here is on should.

But, here’s the thing: it won’t, and here’s why.

The relationship between personal experience of extreme events and people’s climate change beliefs first arose for me when Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York City. It was my first semester as a master’s student. Students, like me, who were interested in and studying the factors that shape individuals’ perceptions of climate change and engagement in climate-related behaviors were, in part, eager to see whether super-storms, such as Sandy, would influence public opinion on climate change. Indeed, if anything positive could result in the wake of such catastrophe, perhaps it would be the emergence of a cultural and political shift towards accepting the seriousness of climate change, and ultimately, the implementation of more effective climate adaptation and mitigation measures based on sound science. Yet, Sandy didn’t galvanize the type of sustained interest or support many had expected from a storm that affected one of the world’s most populated and influential cities.

Five years later, hurricanes Harvey and Irma have elicited the same sense of hope for change amongst some. The thinking goes something like this: shouldn’t the gravity of these storms change people’s minds and our policies on climate change? After all, Irma was one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, while Harvey has already caused billions of dollars in damage, taken human lives, and left the country’s fourth largest city derailed for months if not years to come.

Two theories of influence

Although it is easy to assume that extreme weather events—droughts, wildfires, hurricanes—should influence individuals’ beliefs about climate change, the relationship between individuals’ experience with weather and climate change beliefs is much more complicated. On the one hand, it is argued that direct personal experience with climate-related weather events reduces the psychological distance that exists between individuals and climate change. As a result, these events should, theoretically, drive home the local implications of climate change, thus increasing perceptions of personal risk and the salience of climate change in the here and now.

On the other hand, many scholars argue that individuals are deeply committed to their preexisting, ideologically-driven beliefs about climate change, which in turn influences how they perceive and interpret climate-related weather events, including major storms. For example, such storms are viewed as irrefutable evidence that climate change is a major problem by those already deeply concerned by the issue, even when climate experts caution against attributing particular storms to climate change. In contrast, people who are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change may craft a narrative that dismisses these storms as little more than freak, once-in-a-thousand years natural disasters, unattributable to anthropogenic forces.

What we see in the emerging social science literature is evidence that multiple forces are at work in shaping how and whether people make connections between extreme weather events and climate change. That is, the relationship between individuals’ experience with climate-related weather and climate change beliefs is multidirectional.

When it comes to individuals’ experience with weather, research shows that subjective perceptions of yearly temperature increases and higher temperatures are correlated with the belief that global warming is occurring; yet, individuals are also more likely to express skepticism when experiencing below average temperatures or above average snowfall. As for experiencing extreme weather events, several UK-based studies have found that individuals affected by severe flooding were more concerned about climate change than members of the general public (for more see two related articles here and here). Still, questions remain over the duration of the effect and more importantly, a string of literature also suggests that individuals’ interpretation of weather events with regard to climate change may differ depending on their preexisting ideological (political) beliefs.

One of the most important findings of the past few decades is the influence that ‘motivated’ psychological processes, such as selective information seeking or asymmetric counter-arguing of supportive versus contradictory evidence, play in shaping people’s beliefs about climate change. These mechanisms clearly affect the relationship between experiences with weather and climate beliefs, and not always in the direction many people expect or wish were the case.

The concept of motivated reasoning (and the closely related, ‘cultural cognition’) broadly suggests that individuals tend to seek out and interpret information that justifies or supports their preexisting beliefs about a particular topic. Individuals construe scientific information in ideologically motivated ways, to such an extent that beliefs about climate change are shaped more strongly by preexisting worldviews than by scientific literacy or factual knowledge. Notably, this trend appears to extend to how individuals process and interpret their experience with climate-related weather. Recent work, although limited, suggests that individuals observe and describe climate-related weather events in a way that aligns with their preexisting beliefs about climate change (see here and here for two examples). Thus, the manner in which individuals interpret and respond to super-storms like Harvey and Irma may simply resemble the ideological patterns of dialogue and belief we have come to expect surrounding climate change—ranging from skepticism to alarmism. Combined with how different media outlets tend to cover extreme weather events these days, super-storms and hurricanes may actually end up reinforcing and deepening partisan divides over climate change.

Moving forward

With the effects of climate change right in front of us, it is hard to resist the urge to speak out and draw connections to extreme weather events, especially for climate scientists. While this desire is understandable, however, doing so comes with documented risks. For example, one recent study showed that connecting extreme weather events to climate change in people’s minds can actually decrease willingness to provide humanitarian aid to victims, particularly for those more antagonistic or skeptical of climate change. As communicators and scientists, we have a responsibility to carefully consider how our best intentions to communicate about climate change can produce unexpected, and sometimes counterproductive, effects on diverse audiences.

It goes without saying that communicating about climate change is difficult. During these times of human struggle, it is an even more difficult to navigate given the politically divisive nature of climate change, particularly in Florida.

So, how do we communicate in these moments of devastation?

Lead with compassion, keep the discussion local, use the language of risk management, highlight the solutions that can mitigate the risks we face, and help people be better prepared for the next disaster.

*It is important to note here that this is a limited, nascent pool of literature, and more research is needed to study this relationship.

Check out this article for a full review of the literature to date:

Borick, C., & Rabe, B. (2017). Personal Experience, Extreme Weather Events, and Perceptions of Climate Change. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. 

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ctucker's picture

I just want to reiterate one of the methods of climate communication: "keep the discussion local." So often, especially as scientists, we tend to over reach for what is occurring, and though the issues we communicate are true, they are often too intangible to be useful. I've found in my own personal experience that using local examples and storytelling can be extremely powerful in communicating science as a whole. Nice Job, Meaghan!

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