In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.
This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern- and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.
I have heard many scientists, including the former UK chief scientific advisor Sir David King, go further and argue that real public and political attention requires such events. Climate change campaigners are already building their public communications around this assumption (for example a viral campaign ‘advert’ contrasts Romney’s ludicrous nomination speech with Sandy).
However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions- especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognise that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.
A few weeks ago I was in Texas interviewing people in Bastrop where, in 2011, the worst fires in Texas history (by a tenfold margin) destroyed 1,700 homes. The fires were directly related to the extreme drought and record breaking temperatures that struck central Texas in 2011. Causal links are always hard, but even the state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon (who surely has one of the hardest jobs in climate science) made a cautious connection between climate change, the drought and the fires. I did six interviews in Bastrop: with the mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the editor of the local newspaper and with three people who had lost everything they owned in the fires.
It was very interesting that not one of them could recall any conversation about anthropogenic climate change in relation to the fires. The mayor, who said he accepted climate science, found that there was little interest or willingness among people to make this connection and it seems he felt it politic not to push it.
People did note that there was a change in the weather and most anticipated that the drought and fires could happen again. But they weren’t really interested in talking about this- what they really wanted to talk about was their pride in their community, the value of their social relations, their resilience and their personal and collective capacity to overcome challenges. They had recovered remarkably fast and the local economy had grown (boosted by government recovery grants and insurance payments). The county is doing very well and continues to grow- incredibly, after entirely repeatable wildfires incinerated the homes of a third of the residents, it is said to be the fourth fastest growing county in the US.
I would argue that the responses in Bastrop are entirely consistent with what we know about the way that people respond socially and cognitively to disasters and climate change.
Disasters can reinforce social networks (and with them established norms and worldviews)
In disasters, especially in areas with strong communities, people tend to pull together and show a remarkable and inspiring sense of collective purpose. This is nicely reflected in Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book, a Paradise Built in Hell
We know, though, that attitudes to climate change are strongly correlated with political and ideological worldviews (see for example the work of Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project ). We can therefore anticipate that a stronger cultural cohesion could make it even harder for ideas that challenge existing worldviews to be voiced or accepted- creating even further obstacles for the acceptance of climate change in societies that are currently skeptical.
And we could anticipate that extreme events might also reinforce existing concern in places that are already disposed to accept climate change. It will also be very interesting to see how Hurricane Sandy affects attitudes to climate change of both people inside and outside affected areas. Given than attitudes to climate change are often held as part of a political identity, we cannot be surprised if people in a politically left leaning area (and much of the affected area is strongly Democrat) are prepared to ascribe extreme weather events to climate change. But this will not, of itself, be evidence that extreme events changes attitudes.
Disasters can increase social confidence and certainty.
Accepting anthropogenic climate change requires a high degree of self-criticism and even self-doubt. It requires a preparedness to accept personal responsibility for collective errors and for entire societies to accept the need for major collective change. And, inevitably, this process of acceptance would generate intense debate and conflict.
Disasters may very well do the opposite and provide proof of the worth of the existing social system- including the existing worldview and lifestyle. The spirit of pulling together and moving on generates a consensus to suppress divisive issues and support the existing society. Areas of contention or disagreement are likely to be suppressed in the interests of social cohesion or out of respect to people who have offered kindness and generosity. After all, if your current society and economic model has served you well in a crisis you are surely less willing to accept change.
We could say, for historical comparison, that the transition of Germany from a dictatorship to a successful social democracy required the self doubt and introspection that came with defeat. Britain and the US won the war and with it a correspondingly inflated view of their own global authority that lasts to this day.
Disasters encourage powerful and compelling survival narratives (that can overwhelm weaker and more complex climate change narratives).
People’s view of the world (and their place in it) is shaped through narratives. Social groups seek to negotiate shared narratives that are simple, appealing and reinforce shared values. In so doing they will reject or marginalise competing narratives that might challenge their current worldview. (For example just look at the competition of interpretive narratives around Thanksgiving ! ).
So a complex and challenging narrative will have a very hard time being accepted as social truth when it is competing against strong, appealing and highly coherent narrative. In the case of Bastrop the weak narrative is that the fires were caused (in part) by weather conditions which were caused (in part) by climate change which was caused (in part) by the culture and behaviour of Bastrop residents.
It’s a hard one to sell at the best of times, and a disaster is the very worst condition for this narrative because it is overwhelmed by a much more attractive story: “we support each other, we are surrounded by evidence of our love and kindness, we are tough, we faced a huge challenge and we won through…and we can do it again”. This does not just speak to local pride, but the much larger mythology of frontier town Texas.
And there are other powerful narratives waiting in the wings. In other disasters the most powerful narrative can be one of blame- of the people who started a fire (leading at times to the demonization of a supposed arsonist), the government who did not build the flood defences, the construction companies who broke building codes, or the emergency services who failed to do their job.
These may well be valid arguments, but they also generate an enemy and victim frame which is far more compelling that anything offered by climate change. “It’s their fault and I demand action against them and restitution” is a much more compelling story than “it may be my fault or our fault and I demand that we work together to change the way we live”. The fatal flaw of the climate change narrative is that, uniquely among our major problems, it has no clear enemy at all.
Disasters are cyclical and create escalating baselines
Human psychology is strongly prone to creating patterns and comparisons based on the ‘availability’ of comparable events. In terms of environmental issues people tend to be very poor at noticing decadal change (and certainly intergenerational change) because of a shifting baseline.
Disasters create intense but isolated events after which, as the people on Bastrop said, things go back to ‘normal’. The pain and loss of the event generates an intensified desire that there be a ‘normal’ state to which one can return, making it harder to people to accept that there are larger changes underway. The desire for stability makes people more prone to see a disaster as being at the extreme end of natural variations (that is to say part of a normal cycle).
However, any extreme event has also created a new baseline. The next event will be measured against this baseline and, if this is equivalent or lesser will reinforce the idea that it was part of a normal cycle. There is a good chance too that the collective learning and adaptation to the previous event will ensure that future events will be more manageable and have lower human and economic impacts. This too will reinforce ideas the perception that such events are not escalating.
The critical consideration in how events are perceived is the relationship between an event and the most recent comparable events, and the time that separates them. Events that are far apart are unlikely to be noticed, whereas we could assume a greater perception of change around events that are relatively recent, memorable, and clearly escalating.
Well this is true to a degree, but then there is a risk of another problem for events that come too often…..
Repeated disasters generate hopelessness and powerlessness
The ‘Paradise in Hell’ communitarianism pertains to events that are relatively rare anomalies in an otherwise confident and successful society. If extreme events occur with regularity – especially if they occur too regularly for communities and economies to recover fully- they could generate a sense of despair and helplessness.
I suspect that the most likely response to regular extreme events would be for people to move or to bunker down into inwards looking family and social groups. This in turn would work against the outward looking confidence required to take action on climate change. People may, under these conditions, accept the reality of climate change but if they do so they will have to accept that actions to mitigate emissions, even across the entire world, will not prevent further more extreme and severe events.
Different kinds of extreme climate may have different impacts on public attitudes
It is important to differentiate between different kinds of climate event and suggest that they may have different outcomes in public attitudes. Droughts and heatwaves are extended conditions that encourage the perception that there is a long term change underway (a change in the ‘normal’). What is more, although they generate solidarity in suffering there is far less of the ‘pull together’ cohesion that occurs in major disaster events. We could reasonably infer that they may be more likely to generate an increase in concern about climate change.
This conjecture seems to be borne out in recent research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication which found an increase between spring and fall of 2012 in the number of people who reported that had been they had personally harmed by drought and heat waves and a slight decline in those reporting harm from other weather events. Overall the survey found a 5% increase the number of respondents who would agree that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States”.
The relationship between climate disasters and perceptions of climate change is complex as it is mediated by socially constructed narratives.
This means that campaigners and communicators should be very wary of charging into areas affected by extreme weather events and assuming that they have fertile ground for increased activism around change. The very opposite may be true, especially if they are perceived as outsiders who are breaking into the community (which may never have been stronger or more united) and exploiting its suffering. It would be hard to imagine anything more counterproductive than an environmental activist organisation dropping a banner in the midst of a conservative community after a major disaster.
The critical condition for affecting longer term attitudes is the extent to which events are translated into a socially held narrative that speaks to people’s sense of their own identity. And this requires a steady long term approach – waiting until the dust has settled and working with trusted local communicators who can make a case that the single event fits into a narrative pattern of longer term change.