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.

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.

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