Americans would rather adapt to extreme weather than curb climate change

Scientists, policymakers, and activists have been holding out hope that an increase in extreme weather events might prompt Americans to embrace policies that curb greenhouse-gas emissions. They may be waiting a long time, a new study suggests.

Mike Groll/AP
Mark Petrik and Dennis Smith dig out their south Buffalo driveway on Saturday, in Buffalo, N.Y. A new study found that Americans are more willing to adapt to extreme weather events, such as the record snowfall that buried Buffalo last week, than take steps to curb climate change.

Americans generally may be more ready to adapt to extreme weather and climate events, which are projected to become more frequent with global warming, than to curb greenhouse-gas emissions driving the long-term warming trend.

That is the implication of a new study exploring the relative influence that extreme events, a person's spot on the political and ideological spectrum, as well as gender, age, education, and perceptions about the existence and causes of global warming have on their views on the subject.

Some scientists, policymakers, and activists "have this belief that as more and more Americans experience climate change, their opinions will change. That's a fairly strong belief," says Aaron McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the lead author of the study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Nature Climate Change.

But the study indicates that "this is not as reasonable an assumption as we think. We'd have to see stronger extremes hitting you over and over again to see people's views change."

People have relatively little trouble acknowledging that extreme events are occurring when their perceptions are compared with weather data on these events – whether it's the prolonged, severe drought in California, up to seven feet of snow burying communities near Buffalo, or in the study's case, an unusually warm winter in 2012.

But when it comes to blaming climate change, the strongest predictors of a person's response are their existing views on global warming, the level of scientific agreement they perceive on the issue, and their party identification, the study found. What was actually going on around them had virtually no influence on people's response when asked about global warming.

At the same time, the recognition across ideologies that an extreme event has occurred or is under way means "there's hope for adaptation," Dr. McCright adds. "At a bare minimum, for adaptation you need people to accurately perceive what's happening around them. If they do, you can give them tools to adapt" to the changes.

The study used state-by-state weather data for lower 48 states during the first three months of 2012. At 6.0 degrees above the long-term average, this was the warmest January-March period on record for the continental US, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. March set a record for the month at 8.6 degrees above the long-term record. McCright and two colleagues also drew on a nationwide Gallup poll conducted in March of that year in which respondents from the lower 48 states were asked about the unusually warm winter and its causes.

The objective was to identify how well people's perceptions of what was happening locally matched up with the weather data from various locations across the continent. If people's perceptions did jibe with the data, to what extent might the data affect their views on global warming.

One result researchers found remarkable was that people's perception of a warmer than normal winter held up regardless of the time frame: the past decade, the past 30 years, or the past century.

Yet even here, party identification occasionally trumped weather data.

"What's so interesting is that we do find that Republicans were slightly less likely to say the winter was warmer," says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater and a member of the research team.

The effect was small, but statistically significant, he says. "On average Republicans are somewhat less likely to even acknowledge or recognize the warmer winter," he says.

On one level, the study reinforces a message about the influence of ideology, political affiliation, and perceptions about the science and scientific consensus on climate change that at least a dozen other studies have identified.

But this study does so by comparing people's perception about an extreme event with weather data from the even itself, rather than with respondents' personal judgements about whether or not an even was extreme.

The concept that a common perception on the existence of severe events or patterns of events benefits action on adaptation had been demonstrated at local levels across the country. A key approach has been to avoid politically loaded terms related to climate change and focus on the physical change – often sea-level rise – and what needs to be done to defend communities and infrastructure against it.

But this new study suggests that the approach could well work in regions of the country that that have not seen the recent extreme patterns as severe as those that have hit some parts of the country, notably California and the US Southwest.

That still leaves the thorny issue of controlling emissions that have triggered global warming. Once the discussion moves to causes for extremes, party affiliations on the right and left so far are trumping the climate itself in determining what people will or will not support.

"People might be more likely to take steps to adapt, but those steps do nothing to change the long-term trends" that determine how high sea levels get or the frequency and intensity of extreme events, Dr. Dunlap says.

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