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Ideological Certainty Is Stronger Than a Hurricane

Gulf Coast residents’ perceptions of such storms vary according to their politics.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s fairly easy to be in denial about certain unpleasant truths. One would think it would be harder with hurricanes—and one would be wrong.

New research finds people living on the Gulf Coast who reject the scientific consensus regarding climate change are more likely to deny that hurricanes plaguing their region have grown stronger over the past two decades.

“Results of our study once again speak of the powerful role played by (a person’s) political predisposition in determining perceptions of local weather,” writes a research team led by Siyuan Xian of Princeton University and Wanyun Shao of Auburn University–Montgomery. Their study is published in the International Journal of Climatology.

The researchers used data from the 2012 Gulf Coast Climate Change Survey. Residents of Gulf Coast counties from Florida to Texas provided demographic information, and expressed their beliefs regarding climate change.

“Relative to Democrats, Republicans are less likely to believe that hurricanes are becoming stronger.”

They were also asked: “Would you say that the hurricanes that do impact your local community are stronger, not as strong, or about as strong as hurricanes in the past?”

Not surprisingly, perceptions of hurricane strength were mainly based on the intensity of the most recent storm they experienced, rather than an average of the last several. The factor that most influenced their perception was the storm’s maximum wind speed.

But politics also shaped people’s beliefs about, or memories of, recent storms.

“Relative to Democrats, Republicans are less likely to believe that hurricanes are becoming stronger,” the researchers write. They found this difference was entirely explained by different views on climate change held by the two political parties.

The researchers point out that holding such beliefs has practical consequences. As Xian notes, “If you perceive a higher risk, you will be more likely to support policies and take action to ameliorate the impact (of a storm).” Denial, in this case, could be deadly.

The results are a stark example of how our beliefs shape the way we experience the world. Even at her fiercest, mother nature is no match for the need to maintain the narrative that supports our world view.