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Hurricane Sandy was a turning point on views about climate change, but the effect doesn’t trump political views. Liz Roll/FEMA

Will extreme weather events get Americans to act on climate change?

Scientists are drawing a link between climate change and extreme weather events with increasing confidence.

An American Meteorological Society report, for example, studied 28 individual weather events occurring in 2013-2014 and found climate change to have influenced events such as the tropical cyclones that hit Hawaii; extreme heat waves in Argentina, South Korea and China; and severe rainfall in southern France.

And there could be more to come. Although many extreme weather events are driven by natural variability alone, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects that climate change will raise the prevalence and severity of droughts, heat waves, hurricanes and other types of extreme weather.

Yet actually experiencing extreme weather does not seem to be having a significant impact on American citizens’ concern about climate change.

This may change in the future, especially if extreme weather events become more frequent and widespread. But, as things stand today, our recent analysis reveals that Americans experiencing more unusual weather are not any more concerned about climate change.

Extreme weather and public opinion

Some climate change advocates suggest that extreme weather will amplify public demands for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and for policies to focus on building resilience to the effects of climate change, such as hardening city infrastructure to better withstand intense storms.

In the United States, much of this line of thinking came on the heels of Superstorm Sandy, the devastating hurricane that struck New York, New Jersey and other eastern seaboard states in October 2012.

Flooding in Missouri late last year: advocates say emphasizing any possible links between extreme weather and climate will get people to act, although not everyone is convinced that’s a good tactic. CC BY-NC-ND

After all, there is some evidence that Americans believe that climate change is already affecting weather patterns. A 2013 study, for instance, found that almost 60 percent of Americans indicate that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States,” with near majorities also indicating that global warming made recent storms and droughts “more severe.”

Other advocates, however, are less confident that experiences of extreme weather events alone will create a stronger impetus for people to support policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A couple of recent public opinion studies provide good reasons for this skepticism.

One recent study that considered differences in broad measures of climate variation, for example, concludes that climatic extremes have only a negligible effect on how individuals perceive the seriousness of climate change. Other scholars find something similar when considering the effects of extreme weather on measures of national public opinion.

Tenuous and short-lived

How an individual’s experience of weather events affects views on climate change is complicated and difficult to discern, which makes it a challenging area for research.

Scholars who try to understand the linkages design studies that ask if more exposure to extreme weather events, such as heat waves, droughts and storms, either directly or indirectly (through media consumption) tends to increase people’s belief in, or concern about, climate change.

In a study published in Climatic Change, we pursued this question by matching a large database of storm events with a large nationally representative survey of Americans’ views on current issues. Our approach in this study differs from prior work that has relied on measures of climatic anomalies at much larger levels of spatial aggregation, such as climatic regions.

Annual flood magnitude from the 1920s through 2008 with green showing an increasing trend and brown showing a decreasing change. But do severe events change people’s views on the role of climate change in weather? Data from Peterson et al. National Climate Assessment, CC BY

Specifically, our study uses information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Events Database, which collects data on the frequency, as well as the severity, of extreme weather events around the country. We focused on the types of weather events that are predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to become more prevalent in the decades to come.

We combined this with public opinion data from nationally representative surveys fielded in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which includes a direct measure of respondents’ level of concern about climate change.

By carefully matching up geographical location and dates, we were able to examine whether there is an an association between living in areas that have experienced more frequent, as well as more severe, bouts of extreme weather and the extent to which people report that climate change is a problem of real concern.

A unique feature of the study is that we also added data on the frequency and severity of these extreme weather events over longer time periods, ranging from one month up to two years.

Our analysis suggests there is indeed an association between exposure to extreme weather and increased concerns about climate change. Importantly, however, we also find that people’s concern about climate change is associated only with recent extreme weather. In fact, events more than three months in the past typically have no bearing on opinions about climate change.

In addition, it is important to emphasize that these effects are dwarfed by Americans’ partisan identification and political beliefs. To illustrate, if we compare individuals that experience an average number of extreme weather events with a person that experiences about twice that, the associated increase in concern about climate change is small (just about a one percent increase). By comparison, the difference in climate concern between Democrats and Republicans is, on average, about 20 percent.

New game plan for advocates

Will this weak and quickly dissipating relationship between Americans’ experiences of extreme weather and their concern about climate change continue?

One can certainly imagine that, if weather events such as droughts or heat waves become more frequent and severe, people’s concerns about climate change might deepen.

It is also important to test these findings in other countries and jurisdictions. The fact that climate change has become something of an ideological litmus test in the United States – where our data were drawn from – might influence people’s reactions to extreme weather that lead some to downplay its importance. If we shift to other countries, the same type of effects may not be in play.

Adapting to climate change remains a wickedly difficult collective action problem, and there is no guarantee that growing concerns about climate change will translate into increased pressure on politicians to act.

In the short term, though, more frequent and severe extreme weather does not appear to be something that will push Americans to call for action on climate change. That means climate activists will need to pursue alternative strategies to motivate voters to push governments to act on this critical problem.

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