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Study: Extreme weather may not lead to increased support for climate action

Posted on 24 June 2021 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Jennifer Marlon

For some Americans, the signs of global warming are everywhere. In 2020 alone, wildfires broke records across the West, hurricanes fueled by abnormally warm ocean temperatures battered the Southeast, and a Death Valley weather station recorded a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit — possibly the hottest daily high ever reliably documented on Earth. Now, drought has taken hold in much of the West, teeing up what is expected to be an extremely active fire season. 

Climate scientists have been warning for decades that global warming will lead to more extreme weather. And so as more Americans start to personally experience disastrous weather events, it’s reasonable to ask whether they will support aggressive climate action.

The short answer is already clear: not necessarily.

The signal of climate change is difficult for people to notice against the noisy background of day-to-day and seasonal changes in weather.

But even when a neighborhood, city, or region experiences truly unusual weather, some will see it as clearly connected to global warming while for others, the connection won’t even occur to them. Just as two people can respond completely differently to political events, current fashions, or to a football game, two individuals can share what seems to be an identical experience and yet come away with completely different conclusions about what happened, what caused it, and what to do about it.

We do not simply use our senses to record information about our surroundings and daily events – we interpret those events

“Experience” is much more slippery than most of us realize. We do not simply use our senses to record information about our surroundings and daily events — we interpret those events and filter them through our emotions, memories, culture, and in the case of weather and climate, our politics. We then combine our beliefs, attitudes, and evaluations of our past experiences to form new opinions, construct new cause-and-effect models in our minds, and to ultimately build narratives about events that allow us to make sense of the world and how we fit into it.

Figure 1. Percentage of Republicans and Democrats who say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming, by state, 2008-2018. Data from Mildenberger et al. 2017. For Democrats, estimates range from 53% in Wyoming to 66% in Oregon. For Republicans, estimates range from 14% in West Virginia and Wyoming to 48% in Hawaii and New York. (Source: Marlon et al. 2021)

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, or YPCCC, the publisher of this site, has been using nationally representative surveys for 12 years to track which Americans think they have personally experienced global warming.

The data show that Democrats and Republicans living in the same states or counties — or even sharing the same roof — can be a world apart when it comes to perceived experience with global warming (Fig. 1). While 60% of Democrats nationally say they have personally experienced global warming, only 22% of Republicans agree.

Hot, dry days influence perceptions

The strong influence of partisanship on people’s understanding of global warming may not be surprising, but are there some changes in the weather that people are more likely to link with “global warming?” If there are, these weather events are potential conversation starters about climate change.

In a recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, my colleagues and I tried to answer this question by combining 12 years of YPCCC survey data with 11 different temperature and precipitation indicators of changing climate conditions over time. Together, the indicators captured long-term temperature and precipitation trends, and also recent extreme heat, rainfall, and snow events between 2008-2015.

We found that only one type of weather affected Americans’ beliefs that they had experienced global warming: hot, dry days. When hot, dry days persist for a long period of time, drought conditions arise. In particular, the intense heat and lack of rainfall that affected Texas in the Midwest in 2011, and which turned into a severe drought, stands out clearly in the study’s climate data (Fig. 2, top panel). This drought was also associated with extreme wildfires in Texas, which burned about 4 million acres that year, doubling the previous record.

Figure 2. Geographic signature of the hot, dry day anomaly, September 2012 through March 2015. Top row: hot dry day anomalies by year. Bottom row: differences between perceived experience with climate change at the county level for years 2009-2014 using the Yale Climate Opinion Maps model (Howe et al. 2015) and estimates of perceived experience using a model with hot dry day anomalies added. (Source: Marlon et al. 2021)

To see the climate influence on people’s experience, we needed to model it. The red and gray maps show the difference between a model that includes the influence of hot, dry days on people’s experience of global warming and one that doesn’t (Fig. 2, bottom panel). The red areas indicate where more people said that they had personally experienced global warming in each year. The patterns show that it was not only the 2011 Texas drought that influenced people, but also the droughts in the West in 2008, 2010, and 2014, and in the Midwest in 2012 and 2013. In contrast, the darker gray areas in the Midwest in 2008 and 2010, for example, and along the East Coast in 2012, show that people there were less likely in those years to say they experienced global warming.

The effects of actual weather and climate changes on people’s experience of global warming are still subtle compared with the influence of politics. But as heat, drought, and other severe weather events continue to become more extreme, many of us hope more people will be persuaded to reduce our carbon emissions more aggressively.

People don’t link downpours with global warming

It is encouraging that some people are associating local increases in heat, dryness, and drought with the broader problem of global warming. Extreme heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States, and its increasing occurrence brings greater heat-related risks, like dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion. Moreover, these effects are disproportionately hurting the most vulnerable among us.

Today, we are breaking heat records at twice the rate as cold records, which before the 1950s had a roughly equal chance of occurring. Drought is the most persistent of extreme weather events, and has devastating effects on agriculture and water supplies, which may explain why people were likely to recall it and link it with climate change.

In our study, people did not link local increases in heavy rainfall with global warming. Given that the connections between global warming and precipitation patterns are more complex than those for temperature alone, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet the relationship is important and has major consequences for our economy and health. Scientists recently calculated that the impact of global warming on Hurricane Sandy includes a price tag of $8 billion from the flooding damage. But many Americans don’t understand how carbon pollution could cause an increase in flooding and hurricane damage. For them, the dots have not been connected yet between cause and effects.

Many are working to connect these dots, showing how climate change is already shaping our lives, and explaining the causal chains between burning fossil fuels, heating the planet, and increasing extreme weather. Kenton Gewecke, chief meteorologist at KOMU 8 in Columbia, Missouri, is just one example. He hosts a series called “Show Me Climate,” in which he talks to scientists and explains how temperatures, rainfall patterns, storms, and other events are changing in Missouri. Gewecke says many viewers appreciate the information. If other broadcast meteorologists follow Gewecke’s lead, they’ll serve as trustworthy and knowledgeable guides to help Americans understand and learn from our experiences.

Jennifer Marlon, Ph.D., is a research scientist and lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Many people want to stay wilfully ignorant and keep happily consuming on our finite world resources. Capitalism and its inherent growth needs  and " controlled" by its numerous lobbying/bribing corporations in conjunction with fake news media is guaranteeing the rise of co2 and green growth is false hope,  It seems to me more than ever, even if the wealthy and privileged will finally believe in GW, "they" will still not want to change things-after all, their wealth is still increasing. When the shit increasing hits the fan, we all know who will suffer the worst. An ugly truth here    One meteorologist on a tv station explaining away is just another nothing changes.  When I talk to the guys at work and ask if anyone would like to understand better how this heating up is happening-I get..." what are talking about, they can't even make their mind up if it's GW or climate change!"    or   "It's only one degree, big deal".   How to get people to even understand the simplist concepts of our predicament is ******.  AND then to show them this is possibly our only solution   I really hope all those links are wrong..

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  2. Regarding the link on capitalism:

    The link says "Capitalism demands a global avg growth rate of 3%"

    A quick google search shows several economists think that capitalism would work just fine with zero economic growth. This is one example, and it includes a reference to the writers own peer reviewed study:

    The original link on capitalism also pretty much suggests the answers to environmental problems and the alleged need to get rid of  capitalism is socialism (the common ownership of the means of production). Good luck with that. Experiments in socialism at scale have been abject failures, eg the Soviet Union, N Korea, Cuba etc. Unless you like living in dreadful conditions and near starvation. Common ownership is sometimes used where you have public ownership of some types of infrastructure, but this doesn't mean it would necessarily work for everything.

    Perhaps a more sensible solution is that capitalism has to change to have more goals than just the profit motive.

    The link also says that renewables will be a disaster mainly because of high levels of resource use and various negative environmental impacts, and that nuclear power is therefore preferable. Its an interesting point about resource use  because I've seen calculations showing renewables do use the greater volume of resources than nuclear power, and its intuitively obvious, however it tends to be in materials like concrete and fibreglass where the components aren't particularly scarce, and copper which can be easily recycled. Nuclear power uses less total volume of materials, but some of them are very scarce and the uranium essentially gets used up. You also have environmental disasters when reactors explode and there is the nuclear proliferation problem. So its certainly not clear that nuclear power should be the complete answer. It might form a small part of the answer.

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  3. "Perhaps a more sensible solution is that capitalism has to change to have more goals than just the profit motive."  Capitalism with a conscience, good luck with that.

    " Some countries incorporate both the private sector system of capitalism and the public sector enterprise of socialism to overcome the disadvantages of both systems. In these economies, the government intervenes to prevent any individual or company from having a monopolistic stance and undue concentration of economic power. Resources in these systems may be owned by both the state and by individuals."       I think the quality of govt has declined here in Aust, so many examples of govt policy being their lobbyists policies, climate change inaction being just one.

    Your link to Adam Barretts novel mathmatical macroeconomic model is a theoretical hope and the comments after the article were good reading-thanks  But we need something very substantive to wake our sleep-walking populous and soon. The increasing suffering maybe unequal but all will feel the cumulative effects from climate change.

    I will re-share that ugly financial banking sector link here,  you really believe THAT could change soon, I wish too.

    I really don't want to "go nuclear", but the reality is we have squandered so much time, a % of our energy production is maybe inevitable? We are all human beings with associated complexities. This link from the comments section from your link explains much and asks me, can we change?

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  4. Sorry mate, ha,forgot the last link,

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  5. "Perhaps a more sensible solution is that capitalism has to change to have more goals than just the profit motive."

    "Capitalism with a conscience, good luck with that."

    Why do you say good luck with that? I didn't say it would be a voluntary thing. Such environmental goals could be legislated for.

    " Some countries incorporate both the private sector system of capitalism and the public sector enterprise of socialism to overcome the disadvantages of both systems."

    Yes this can be good. I did mention that governments typically own various public assets like infrastructure. Some own and provide health services. The scandinavian countries do this.

    "Your link to Adam Barretts novel mathmatical macroeconomic model is a theoretical hope and the comments after the article were good reading-thanks But we need something very substantive to wake our sleep-walking populous and soon. The increasing suffering maybe unequal but all will feel the cumulative effects from climate change.

    We do need something substantive, but nobody has articulated a fundamentally different system to capitalism that actually looks like it would work. All the alternatives I see are just forms of socialism which has been tried at scale and failed as previously stated. Even small scale experiments in common ownership have a history of mostly failing after a decade or so (google it). So if anyone wants to try that yet again I would say "good luck with that".

    I'm not a huge fan of capitalism. Its harsh and avaricious and at times it angers me, but I just doubt theres a fundamentally better system overall. The best approach may be the combination of capitalism and socialism embraced by the Scandinavian countries (as you alluded to). And I think it should be possible to modify details of how capitalism operates. It is never static anyway. This may all be as good as it gets. There is no guarantee that there is a better system. Things like the circular economy and donout economy are not incompatible with capitalism, or at least not incompatible with private ownership. All these things add together to form quite substantive change. They will face a lot of resistance, but another try at socialism looks like a bad idea to me, and will probably face even more resistance. As will other totally crazy ideas.

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  6. Prove we are smart @3&4

    I forgot. Thank's for the links. I enjoy reading that sort of thing.

    Just read a book on the ugly finanical banking sector called 
    "Other Peoples Money" by John Kay.

    I have nothing really against nuclear power in principle. Closing these things down because of the Fukushima scare seems like an overreaction. But building nuclear power stations is a very slow process. I don't see how it can be of much use in meeting the Paris Climate Accord goals of 2050. And nuclear power is not really our decision. Ultimately it comes down to generating companies and they seem to prefer wind and solar power for various reasons including lower costs than nuclear power. In reality I suspect the world will end up with a mixture of both power sources.

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  7. Thanks Nigelj, I read this somewhere  " sometimes the leader you get, is not the leader you need". Education is the key, but a lot of people don't/can't be unlocked...

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  8. I think it relevant that Dr. Katherine Hayhoe of Texas Tech recently noted that while 70% of people in the USA believe global warming is real, only 43% think it will affect them in THEIR lifetimes.  So more than half of us here still think that dealing with global warming is someone else's problem, one for another generation.  That kind of inertia is difficult to overcome.

    Hayhoe Talk at ODU, Oct. 2020

    Meanwhile, I still think most people fear nuclear power far more than global warming. 

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