The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

You might think that living through a hurricane will change people’s minds about global warming. Not so much.

Two residents paddle though their flooded neighborhood in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Fort Myers, Fla., on Sept. 12. (David Goldman/AP)

For the past two weeks, Americans have been gripped by the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey. This only intensified over the weekend with the landfall of Hurricane Irma. The recovery from these catastrophic storms will take months, if not years. As the focus shifts from recovery to planning for the future, people will undoubtedly focus on climate change. While the science suggests that severe weather will become more frequent thanks to global warming, it is difficult to say that global warming caused any specific storm. Scientists, however, are more certain that effects of climate change are making storms like Hurricane Harvey worse.

This raises an awkward political question — do extreme weather events like hurricanes change people’s minds about whether global warming is taking place? Some, like Sarah Posner at The Washington Post, note that millions in Florida are without power, and hope that “these storms will be a wake-up call for Republican voters, if not for their leaders.” Activists and politicians use extreme weather events to push for more action on climate change.

Yet the assumption that extreme weather events will change people’s minds en masse doesn’t have much backing. Our research shows that people who experience severe weather are only modestly more likely to support the types of efforts we need to build resilience to climate change.

In theory, people who have experienced hurricanes should be more concerned about global warming.

If people draw a connection between dramatic weather events and global warming, this could lead the public to put pressure on government to act. As we discuss in our research, living through hurricanes and other extreme weather might plausibly have big consequences for people’s beliefs about climate change and how to respond to it. For example, people who live through storms, such as Harvey or Irma, might start supporting policies designed to help us build resilience against climate change. After all, people who live through these events experience the effects of extreme weather in a very real and visceral way, which might make them stop thinking of global warming as an abstract problem for other people.

We might also expect people in general to be less willing to support policies intended to mitigate the problem of climate change than policies intended to help their localities adapt to global warming. Policies aimed at reducing, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, will have immediate local costs and benefits for people elsewhere in the world and in future generations. Some oppose international agreements, such as the Paris accord — but they should not be so ready to oppose climate adaptation policies that have immediate and local benefits for their own homes and communities. Again, we might expect that support for global warming adaptation would be strongest among those at most risk for extreme weather.

In practice, it’s more complicated.

In a research article that has just been published, we set out to determine whether people who have experienced more frequent bouts of extreme weather are more likely to support climate adaptation policies than those who have not. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration collects detailed data on the frequency and severity of different kinds of extreme weather, from 122 Weather Forecasting Offices nationwide. We combined this data with questions about climate adaptation policies that we asked in a nationally representative survey.

Our questions mirrored policy proposals on coastal development restrictions, residential water use restrictions, and storm water control measures that are being adopted or considered for adoption. For example, we asked whether it is a good idea to mandate that the bottom floor of structures be elevated above the highest estimated flood levels. This was based on parts of the San Francisco Bay Plan. We also asked a more general question about how much effort people thought should be devoted to planning for the impacts of climate change.

We found that there was broad support for general adaptation planning. Over 65 percent of the people surveyed, for example, supported some level of effort being made to plan for climate change impacts. There were similar levels of support for individual adaptation policies, including among those living in places that would benefit most directly from the adaptation measure in question.

However, we did not find that there was much of a difference between people who had likely themselves directly experienced more frequent hurricanes, floods, droughts, and other types of extreme weather. People in areas that have experienced extreme weather are more likely to support these policies — but not by much. Other factors, such as partisan identification and political ideology, were much more important to people’s views. Moreover, the effect of extreme weather disappears quickly; there was no discernible difference after a month between people who experienced more extreme weather and those who did not.

It could be that these results reflect imperfections in the data. Further research with different questions covering other geographic areas might reveal different patterns. It is also quite possible that things will look different if there is an identifiable increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather.

However, if our findings are right, it suggests that severe weather will only have a small and transient effect on peoples’ support for climate adaptation. Even though events like Hurricane Irma are tragic, it may very well be that people tend to forget about them quite quickly and get on with the rest of their lives.

Llewelyn Hughes is associate professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. David Konisky is associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University.