Lessons from the Field: Lasting Impact of Extreme Weather Events on Climate Engagement

We are exploring to what extent extreme weather events can serve as lasting climate wake-up calls. In advance of Monday’s roundtable "A Year Later: Assessing the Lasting Impact of Hurricane Sandy and Others Extreme Weather Events on Climate Engagement” we asked Climate Access members: “In your experience, how much of a game-changer can a single extreme weather event be in terms of public attitudes and engagement on climate? If you work in a region that has been hit by an extreme weather event (flood, hurricane, wildfire etc), please share how it affected views and actions on climate, including any engagement strategies that helped.”

Here is some of what they had to say:

Ronnie Citron-Fink, Moms Clean Air Force

Extreme weather events have moved climate change from “out of sight, out of mind,” to a deeper understanding that stronger, more extreme weather is headed in our way. From insurance companies to weather and news reporters, to many politicians and the overwhelming agreement from the scientific community, families around the country are drawing their own conclusions that extreme weather is attributed to man-made climate change.
Living in NY, my family on the coast was directly impacted by Hurricane Sandy. They are left with a severely damaged home, loss of property and a dramatically changed community that will never be the same again. Not only have attitudes changed, citizens are proactive in the knowledge that inaction is the biggest threat from climate change. This new consciousness will guide the decisions families make in both the pocketbook and the voting booth"

Robert Brulle, Drexel University

This is an interesting question. There is a pretty extensive literature regarding focusing events which are unexpected disasters such as the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Three Mile Island, etc. What this literature shows is that there is a temporary opening of a window of concern. But this concern decays with time. Dr. Hamilton of University of New Hampshire presented an empirical analysis of the effects of extreme weather on climate change concern in New Hampshire, and found a fairly rapid decline factor. However, there was a residual effect. But to say that there can be a "game changing" event is very problematic. In my opinion, dramatic weather events create a time-limited political opening that organized groups can use to their advantage. But their impact fades with time.

(Note: Also, Professor Brulle sent us these excerpts from a longer article that he published in 2010 that summarizes the literature on unexpected disasters.)

Andrea Bunting, La Trobe University, School of Psychological Sciences

I have my doubts about whether extreme weather events will improve public engagement on climate change. I live in Melbourne, Australia. The southeastern part of Australia is very vulnerable to bushfires (aka "wildfires") and these are expected to worsen with climate change. In February 2009, towns on the outskirts of Melbourne were devastated by a catastrophic bushfire that killed 173 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. It was Australia's worst-ever natural disaster. I don't think this has galvanized people to take mitigation action on climate change - perhaps it has focused the attention of some people on adaptation. (That is, I have some anecdotal evidence that some people are thinking of moving to safer areas.) But since 2009, interest in climate change in Australia has declined markedly. This decline, I believe, is due to the ending of a 13-year drought that affected large parts of Australia. During the drought, particularly during the later years, there was a high level of concern about climate change, and it was discussed in the newspapers very regularly. So I think it is chronic weather patterns that may engage people, rather than the one-off extreme weather events.

As I write this email, there are very serious bushfires out of control outside of Sydney. So far there has been only one death, but hundreds of houses have been destroyed. That these bushfires have come so early in the season is quite shocking. But more shocking is the reaction to those who are linking these bushfires to climate change. The Green Party has been quite vocal in making this link. They have been vilified by the federal government and other local politicians for "politicizing" the human tragedy. So when we have extreme weather events, conservatives use this opportunity to portray climate change as a political issue.

Stefano Caserini, Polytechnic University of Milan

In Italy there was a strong heat wave in 2003 that increased the attention to the climate change issue. More recently then there have been several extreme precipitation events that caused floods, but they have very rarely been associated with global warming in the mass media.

I believe that a single extreme weather event could change public attitudes and engagement on climate change only if it is very relevant and if it is accompanied with an information campaign that shows clearly the links with global warming, from a statistical point of view.

Courtney St. John, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED)

As Superstorm Sandy beat the East Coast one year ago, I was busy (despite a lack of electricity) coordinating media responses from researchers in my role as outreach director at the Center for Environmental Decisions (CRED). CRED studies the social science side of climate change, including natural hazards. We examine the behavioral components regarding why people may or may not take action on extreme events. The case of Sandy was a high-profile example because it hit New York City, a city that is iconic for America and the world. For that reason, many people outside of the region took note - at least temporarily. CRED research tells us that, in general, direct experience with a particular event (including a natural hazard event) will lead to greater group and individual engagement and action. Yet we also know the importance of "striking while the iron is hot" - getting people the best information possible while they are still thinking about a hazardous event, immediately before or after the event. As people become more temporally distant from a single event, they are less likely to take actions necessary to prepare for future events.

Denise Fontanilla, Aksyon Klima Pilipinas

The concept of climate change did not become well known to the Filipino public until Typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana), followed two days after by Typhoon Pepeng (Parma), ravaged the Luzon island group and also affected Visayas and Mondanao. Ondoy left 464 dead, Pepeng 465, and jointly left about 38.3 billion pesos (about $890 million) worth of infrastructure and agriculture damaged.

Ondoy has now become a Filipino colloquial verb, and the Climate Change Act was quickly passed in 2009, in turn forming the Philippines' Climate Change Commission. Rarely do I see climate deniers trolling local social media, although some skeptics are unfortunately in government. The collective trauma of the Filipino people is what keeps discussions on climate change alive even in the media. What we want to do now in our CSO network is to steer the discussion from just extreme weather events to also slow-onset impacts, given our high dependence on agriculture.

Vanessa Warheit

I recently gave a Climate Reality presentation to a group of Latino artists, a few days after the unprecedented twin hurricanes (Ingrid and Manuel) hit Mexico. It was very effective to show images of these events, and use them as examples of extreme weather and the anticipated effects of climate change. People respond most viscerally to images of people they can identify with - so showing images of Mexican villagers being flooded out of their homes helped to connect the dots for Mexican-Americans living here in California.

Yvonne Chasukwa Mwalwenje, government of Malawi

Malawi is a country found in central Africa. One of the extreme weather events that negatively affects the country is the flooding that occurs during the rainy season. Malawi’s low-lying areas are prone to floods due in great part to human-induced factors such as deforestation. Due to the growing population of the country, Malawi uses a lot of wood for domestic firewood. Coupled with high rate of employment, most households rely on selling charcoal as their source of livelihood. As such, most of the land is left bare. It should be noted that vegetation intercepts water, so if the land is bare, there could be excessive runoff which eventually cause floods. The flood-prone areas requite authorities’ intervention such as government and donor agencies. This means that the resources that could otherwise been used in other development work is being used in assisting the flood victims....hence, a single extreme weather event changes the whole existing situation.

Jim McLennan, La Trobe University Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre

Based on my seven post-bushfire (wildfire) field interview research deployments for the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre in Victoria, WA, Tasmania and NSW 2009-2013: not in relation to bushfires. The role of land management agencies, local governments, and fire and emergency services are much more salient in householders' experiences. Weather on the day is seen as the driver of extreme bushfire events and few affected householders understand weather on the day to be coupled to climate change.  Maybe this will change if the frequency of disaster-level bushfire events (like NSW 17/10/13) is observed (as predicted—see Gill 2013) to increase notably.

  

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David Minkow