Extreme Weather Can't Shake Climate-Change Beliefs

New research finds attitudes toward climate-change mitigation are only minimally and fleetingly affected by severe weather.
By Tom Jacobs,
A person walks through a flooded street with a dog after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

As the United States cleans up after one major hurricane and braces for another, optimists note that all this destruction could yield one positive result: As we experience bigger and more powerful storms—just as the models predicted—perhaps we'll finally come to grips with climate change.

However, a new study throws cold water on that notion.

"People are pretty certain of where they stand on climate change," reports David Koniksy of Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs. "Extreme weather does not move the needle much."

Konisky, along with colleagues Aaron Ray, Llewelyn Hughes, and Charles Kaylor, reports policies requiring new behaviors to address the changing climate are relatively popular. However, experiencing more severe weather does not significantly increase support for such efforts.

The research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, uses data from the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a nationally representative survey. Participants read a paragraph about the scientific consensus about our warming planet, and were asked "If you had to choose, how much effort should be devoted to planning for the impacts of climate change?"

Those in denial stay in denial, no matters how fast the waters rise.

They were also asked about three specific climate-change mitigation policies that have been proposed or implemented in many cities: regulating coastal properties, so their bottom floor is "elevated among the highest estimated flood level"; limiting outdoor water usage, such as lawn sprinklers; and setting aside at least 25 percent of residential lots for land that allows water to filter into the ground.

Their answers were compared with National Weather Service data on extreme weather events in their area. The researchers noted how many extreme weather events had occurred in a respondent's region in the recent past, and examined whether such events affected opinions on relevant mitigation policies (such as whether they were more likely to support coastal building restrictions after a hurricane).

In general terms, just over 30 percent of people said they "strongly supported" such efforts, while an additional 36 percent "somewhat supported" them. These numbers did rise among those who had recently experienced severe weather events of some kind, but "this effect is small and transient," the researchers report.

Specifically, they found support for general adaptation planning increased by one-tenth of 1 percent among people who had experienced severe weather during the previous month. This small increase faded to zero among those whose most recent experience with extreme conditions was longer than one month earlier.

So those in denial stay in denial, no matters how fast the waters rise.

"One reason may be that people do not yet closely attribute many common types of extreme weather to climate change," the researchers conclude. "Perhaps (over time) these linkages will strengthen in the public's mind."

Perhaps. But don't expect much help from Harvey and Irma.

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