Do Extreme Weather Events Spur Action on Climate Change? Evidence of Muted Mobilization in 15 U.S. Communities

By Hilary BoudetLeanne Giordono, and Chad Zanocco

A growing scientific consensus recognizes human-caused climate change as contributing to the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Moreover, scholars and activists alike contend that extreme weather events may provide the best opportunity for raising public awareness, and perhaps even instigating policy action related to climate change adaptation and mitigation. We undertook a systematic comparative case analysis of 15 communities that experienced extreme weather events in the United States between 2012 and 2015 to identify under what conditions and via what mechanisms communities undertake significant climate-related actions following an extreme weather event. We drew on data from local newspaper coverage of each event, interviews with community leaders and active participants in each location’s recovery efforts, secondary data sources about the event’s impact, and surveys with residents.

Although the extreme events we examined spurred significant mobilization for emergency response (volunteers, donations for rescue and recovery efforts), we found they sparked little mobilization about climate change. Our evidence suggests that climate change remained a marginal issue compared to more immediate response and recovery efforts. We did observe community dialogue about climate change in a little over half of the cases, especially in Democratic and/or highly educated communities that had experienced events that scientists are more confident in attributing to climate change (extreme cold/heat; flooding; drought). Moreover, communities that engaged in post-event climate change dialogue tended to have escaped frustrations related to the convergence of volunteers, donations and media that often accompanies these events. Our results thus suggest that a single extreme weather event may have only incremental impact on public discussion related to climate change.

The question then becomes: why did the extreme weather events we examined engender little, if any, mobilization about climate change? Particularly in some of the higher impact events examined here, the search, rescue and recovery process associated with the event appeared to be more than enough for residents to handle – without adding the specter of climate change to the mix. More proximate concerns – emergency management processes; organization of the large influx of volunteers, handling donations and media attention; overseeing local rebuilding and economic redevelopment efforts; and dealing with long-term psychological impacts on residents and mental health concerns – dominated interviews with local leaders. Some cautioned that even broaching the topic of climate change amid a disaster recovery could be perceived as using a community’s loss to further a political agenda.

Despite these words of caution, we did find some evidence of people connecting extreme weather events to climate change, often discussing the event as occurring in quick succession with other extreme events. For example, in Boulder County, Colorado, participants suggested that the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010 fueled increased interest in climate change discussions and actions and that the 2013 flood reinforced these concerns and behaviors. Likewise, in St. Louis, participants hypothesized that it was not a single event but successive extreme events occurring throughout the state of Missouri – particularly in 2011 when the state experienced a blizzard, multiple floods, multiple tornadoes, extreme heat and drought – that prompted residents to consider the impacts of climate change. This finding suggests that as more people personally experience the impacts of climate-related extreme weather, through higher severity and/or frequency of events, more dialogue and possibly mobilization may occur. Indeed, for community members we surveyed post-event, those that reported personally experiencing harm from the event more readily connected the event to climate change and were more supportive of policies to mitigate climate change.

What does all of this mean for those working on the ground to affect change? One critical insight is that communicators and change agents need to proceed with caution in the wake of an extreme weather event. Some residents, who in the aftermath of the event may be coping with both personal and community losses, might not be emotionally ready for discussions about climate change, and attempts to make such connections may backfire. At the same time, some segments of the population might be eager to have such discussions and to take action – particularly actions related to adaptation and preparation for future events. Such discussions might be particularly fruitful in locations that have experienced multiple events in a short period of time or in near-miss locations – nearby areas that missed a direct hit by the event. Finally, our work suggests that the experience of extreme weather events, particularly those that scientists have been able to attribute to climate change, may offer opportunities for tailoring climate change communication efforts to the local experience. For example, in the wake of the 2015 floods in Richland, South Carolina, despite a strong reluctance to use the term “global warming,” we found some evidence of increased dialogue about climate change, due to both the event itself and observations of extreme events in other communities.

While our work challenges the notion that a single extreme weather event will yield rapid social mobilization around climate change, we did find evidence that communities make changes post-event to ensure more effective responses to future events. Furthermore, a tipping point may exist at which such event experiences, especially in combination with exposure to other instances of extreme weather, move individuals and communities to act to slow the progress of climate change. Whether that will come soon enough to mitigate against its projected risks, however, remains to be seen.

Funding for this work was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Sociology Program (#1357055).

Further reading:

Shepard, S., Boudet, H., Zanocco, C. M., Cramer, L. A., & Tilt, B. (2018). Community climate change beliefs, awareness, and actions in the wake of the September 2013 flooding in Boulder County, Colorado. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 8(3), 312-325. doi:10.1007/s13412-018-0479-4

Zanocco, C., Boudet, H., Nilson, R., Satein, H., Whitley, H., & Flora, J. (2018). Place, proximity, and perceived harm: extreme weather events and views about climate change. Climatic change, 149(3), 349-365. doi:10.1007/s10584-018-2251-x

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