Gallup has great news for anyone who’s worried about climate change: You’re not alone. A recent poll finds that a record number of Americans are worried about global warming. The survey was conducted at the close of a historically warm February, and researchers say the recent spate of unusual weather may have made people sit up and take notice.
It’s a compelling explanation, but the reality is far more nuanced. Over the last year, social scientists have produced a slew of new studies that gauge how Americans respond to extreme weather. They found that a stray heat wave or über-powerful storm can drive interest in climate change, but the effects vary — and they don’t last.
What’s clear is that scientists and advocates can’t wait for the weather to change attitudes about the carbon crisis. They have to do the hard work of educating the public themselves.
Does severe weather make people more interested in climate change?
Two recent studies suggest weather does make people pay attention to climate change, but only for a little while.
In the weeks after a hurricane, Google searches for “climate change” or “global warming” spiked, particularly in areas in the path of the storm, according to a study from the University of Rhode Island. A separate study found that Americans were more likely to tweet the words “climate change” or “global warming” after a close encounter with a heat wave, wildfire, flood or other event. The weirder the weather, the more likely people were to tweet about it, said researchers at Columbia University.
Notably, both studies found that mentions of climate change dropped off after a few days or weeks. After a brief spike in interest, people returned to business as usual.
So, does extreme weather make people worry about climate change?
Just as weather can spark interest in climate change, it can also fuel concern, but the effects are short-lived. Americans who endure a heat wave, flood or severe storm tend to worry more about climate change, but their concern fades a month or two later, according to recent study published in the journal Climatic Change.
Jason Carmichael, a sociologist at McGill University, and his colleagues found that, over the long term and on the national level, extreme weather has had no impact on concern about climate change.
“A drought in California or a flood in Mississippi might increase concern about climate change [in those places], but such fears do not appear to translate to the entire nation,” Carmichael said in an email. “It would likely take a weather event so large that it directly impacts a large segment of the U.S. population before it would have a sizable influence on national-level concern.”
February’s warm spell certainly fits the bill. It may explain the recent surge in worry about climate change, but don’t expect the effect to last.
“If a massive storm did hit and increased concern about climate change, concern would fade within a couple months back to original levels,” he said. “Thus, a lasting weather effect would require a massive storm to hit every two months, well, indefinitely.” As Carmichael noted, we need to drastically cut emissions long before we get to that point.
It is possible, however, to draw attention to changing weather patterns today. A study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that Virginians who watch TV weather forecasts tend to believe that heat waves, drought and powerful storms are striking more frequently. Viewers are also more likely to worry about global warming, suggesting that regular exposure to local weather forecasts can shape views about the global climate.
Curiously, the effect was particularly pronounced among conservatives — possibly, researchers speculate, because they tend to trust weather reporters, even more than personal experience. For conservatives, seeing is rarely believing when it comes to climate change.
Do Republicans and Democrats view extreme weather differently?
Most definitely. A 2015 meta-analysis of dozens of studies found that political ideology is the best predictor of one’s view of climate change — far better than gender, level of education or experience with extreme weather. Recent surveys of people living in New Hampshire and along the Gulf Coast found the same. Rampant floods, supercharged storms and scorching-hot summers did little to change conservatives’ view of climate change.
If that sounds bad, don’t worry. It gets worse.
A new study from the University of Wisconsin found that unusually hot or cold weather made Democrats more convinced that humans are causing climate change, but it had the opposite effect on Republicans. Republicans were less likely to believe that humans were causing climate change as temperatures grew warmer.
It could be that, during periods of unusual heat or cold, liberal news outlets affirm the human causes of climate change while conservative do the reverse. Democrats and Republicans occupy their own echo chambers and defer to the opinion of Democratic or Republican leaders.
As David Roberts of Vox explained, “Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.”
Many conservative leaders have said that climate change is not real. Liberal leaders, by contrast, have largely heeded the warnings of NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense. Nearly everyone else has lined up according to the color of their jersey.
What actually changes public opinion about climate change?
Carmichael and his collaborator, Robert Bruelle, a sociologist at Drexel University, attempted to answer this question definitively. They published their findings in the journal Environmental Politics. Here are the three big takeaways:
- People can only fret about so many things at once. Americans worry less about climate change when the economy is in the tank. As Gallup also suggested, a stronger economy has played a role in growing concern about climate change.
- When newsmakers talk about climate change, the press covers it. Greater coverage translates into greater concern. It’s essential that journalists — weather forecasters in particular —continuously report on the carbon crisis.
- Political mobilization by advocacy groups is “critical” to shaping public opinion.
“Don’t wait around for a massive storm,” said Carmichael. He said advocates should focus on politics instead. “The fossil fuel industry outspends the environmental movement by more than 10–1… Taking them on will be tough and costly.”
When the environmental movement flexes its muscle, it can move public opinion. Through a sustained campaign that began in 2012, groups turned the public against the Keystone XL pipeline. The effect was far more pronounced among Democrats than Republicans, but environmentalists managed to win over members of both parties and helped persuade President Obama to block the project.
This is where advocates should focus their attention: on well-defined battles where it is possible to shift public opinion. Environmentalists can’t assume Americans will come around as the mercury rises. They have to speak to the public and pressure politicians, just as fossil fuel interests have done for decades.
“The conservative denial machine is doing laps around climate change advocacy organizations,” said Carmichael. “Success will likely require taking a few cues from their playbook.”