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Are extreme weather events, on their own, enough to shift people’s opinion on climate change?

By Chris Shaw on February 5, 2019

Firefighters put out flames in 2013 in Hidden Valley, California. A huge Southern California wildfire burned through coastal wilderness to the beach on Friday then stormed back through canyons toward inland neighborhoods when winds reversed direction.

Encountering climate change via extreme weather is no guarantee that people will engage with the issue more generally.

New figures show that a growing number (73%) of Americans believe climate change is happening, and they are becoming increasingly worried about its impacts.

Who exactly is changing their mind on climate change and why, however, is not well understood. Is better climate communication shifting people’s opinion on climate change, or is there another explanation?

New research from Yale on who is changing their mind and why

Researchers from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication examined this question by analyzing nationally representative survey data that asked Americans whether they had changed their opinions about climate change, and if so, why.

A closer look at the survey results shows that only a very small minority are changing their minds (or admit to it): 8%.

Within this smaller sample (less than 150 people from a total in the initial survey of more than 3000), the most common reason (21%) given for changing their mind is experiencing climate impacts – but in a period where the US has been repeatedly hammered by climate impacts, that leaves a lot of people who don’t report they have become more concerned because of these experiences.

A similar number (20%) say they have changed their mind as a result of becoming more informed, which suggests communications may be as effective at shifting attitudes as experience of extreme weather events.

Wider research on the links between ‘experiencing’ climate change and ‘believing’ in it

Looking to wider research, ‘encountering’ climate change via extreme weather is certainly no guarantee that people will engage with the issue more generally. While new figures show it is Republican-voting states in the US that stand to lose the most from climate change, making voters aware of this does not mean they will change their opinions about climate change.

Researchers at Cardiff University investigated how record-breaking UK floods during the winter of 2013-2014 affected public opinion on climate change. Between December 2013 and February 2014, the UK experienced widespread flooding, but only 26% of a national sample reported that their concern about climate change had increased. A statistically significant larger number of people who were most affected by the floods (46%) reported that their concern about climate change had risen as a result of their experiences.

However, this is still less than half of the people whose homes were flooded. So there is clearly more to it than a simple causal link between ‘experiencing’ climate change and ‘believing’ in it.

Other researchers in the US examined how four communities’ experiences of extreme weather events (tornadoes and wildfires) influenced their views on climate change.

The results showed that the biggest influence on whether the event was attributed to climate change was not proximity to the weather event, or harm caused, but the residents’ politics and ideology. The people most likely to connect extreme weather to climate change were those living in communities where acceptance of climate change is already high, when the event caused significant impacts and was more easily attributable to climate change, and when elites framed the event in these terms.  

The ideological rejection of climate science is not the result of a trait that people are born with. Republican political leaders in the US, for example, only began communicating a sceptical attitude to climate change from the 1980’s onwards, and it is this framing which has led to polarisation in the US between Republicans and Democrats.

Prior to this shift in the narrative, there was little polarisation on the reality of human-caused climate change. This is evidence of the power of ‘elite cues’ in shaping the way people interpret experience of extreme weather, and demonstrates the importance of messaging and messengers in shaping public opinion.

Building positive public engagement with climate change policy that is self-sustaining, deep and broad will require a coordinated communications strategy that weaves a coherent narrative linking the changing weather to the changes required across society to decarbonise. It is welcome news that the needle may finally be moving a little in the US in terms of public opinion, but we can’t rely on extreme weather events alone to change people’s minds.

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris has been with Climate Outreach’s research team since 2015. In that role, he has been focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work has been driven by a belief that successful climate policies are those policies that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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