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This year’s extreme fires and floods may change what Americans think about climate change, our research finds

But local communities alone will be unlikely to halt, or even slow, climate change. Any such efforts will require state and federal government policies.

A home on Jeters Road burns from the Dixie Fire south of Janesville, Calif., on Aug. 16. Weather throughout the region threatens to spread wildfires in Northern California. (Ethan Swope/AP)

The latest United Nations climate report concludes that human-caused climate change is “a code red for humanity,” as the U.N. secretary general put it. That threat is visible in a slew of unprecedented events across the globe.

The Dixie Fire, the largest megafire ever recorded in the United States, is causing evacuations across Northern California; its size recently surpassed the Bootleg Fire that burned in Oregon this summer. These join a growing list of recent and major Western wildfires. While wildfires cannot be directly attributed to climate change, scientists note a strong connection between warmer and drier conditions — both linked to climate change — and increasing wildfire risk. All this comes atop a list of extreme weather events linked to climate change in the past year, including winter storms in Texas, heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and a record-breaking hurricane season.

Nor is the United States alone: Massive and unprecedented wildfires are tearing through Siberia, Algeria, Greece, Italy, Lebanon and Turkey, while other parts of the world are being devastated by equally unprecedented flooding.

Given how politically polarized Americans’ beliefs and attitudes are about climate change, how do individuals and communities hit by such extreme weather respond? Political science theory suggests that sudden, rare and harmful events can grab citizens’ and policymakers’ attention, opening opportunities for changing policies. We wanted to know if that’s happening — and if so, what communities and individuals are becoming more willing to change.

How we did our research

To learn about how extreme weather events are affecting local political attitudes and action, we studied 15 U.S. communities that had endured extreme weather events between 2012 and 2015. We used the Spatial Hazard Events and Losses Database and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Billion-Dollar Climate and Weather Disasters to identify affected counties, with populations ranging from 19,000 to 5 million. These 15 communities came from 13 states across the continental United States; each event involved at least four fatalities and was covered by a local newspaper.

Across all 15 communities, we sought data in several ways. We reviewed 4,610 newspaper articles and 203 opinion pieces in the year after the event for information about active community members and organizations, climate change discussion and policy changes. We then conducted 164 interviews with community members like elected officials, emergency response staff, community organization and religious leaders. We also surveyed 1,756 residents in 10 of the 15 communities and drew on socio-demographic and community indicators from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Using these sources, we developed measures characterizing each community and its response to the weather disaster. Community discussion of the event’s connection to climate change, for example, was measured by the share of interviewees, the number of newspaper articles, number of local opinion leaders or organizations, and number of local efforts that connected the event to climate change. We also captured a variety of other event-, community- and person-specific characteristics, such as event impacts and political orientation. (For more on our methods, read one or more of our publications.)

We used a comparative approach to identify conditions under which community discussion and policy change occurred, and statistical modeling to assess individual characteristics associated with policy support. While we cannot directly attribute changes in the community to the specific event, our research design and data sources allow us to draw inferences about community responses to similar events.

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Rescue, recovery and reducing carbon emissions

Naturally, after a weather-related disaster, communities overwhelmingly focused on rescue and recovery. But we found that some communities — particularly those that lean Democratic — did indeed discuss the event’s link to climate change, especially after events scientists more confidently attribute to that source. In these communities, post-event discussion about the event’s connection to climate change was noted by a majority of interviewees, reported more than once by local media, invoked by a local opinion leader or organization, and involved at least one local effort to educate and/or take action about climate change.

We also noted that when the extreme weather harms individuals — for example, through physical injury or financial loss — they are more likely to support climate change mitigation policies, including carbon taxes, renewable energy development and regulating carbon dioxide. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced among conservatives who reported harm — even though as a group they were less supportive of such policies.

Finally, we found that the communities hit by extreme weather adopted policies that would prepare them to better survive such events in the future. For example, they bought equipment (like snowplows), changed local land use and ecosystem protection guidelines (such as allowing dying trees to be removed during droughts), implemented structural changes (such as building tornado-safe rooms) and collaborated with other communities for such purposes as coordinating emergency response plans. Notably, Democratic- and Republican-leaning communities changed these policies, even in communities that did not discuss the event’s link to climate change. Yet few communities responded to extreme weather events with new plans to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions during our study.

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Slowing climate change will take state and federal action

These findings, taken together, suggest that local communities alone will be unlikely to halt, or even slow, climate change; any such efforts will require state and federal government policies. However, as extreme weather damages more communities, more Americans may be ready to support such action by their state and federal representatives while the localities themselves are preparing for fires, floods, sea level rise, power grid failure and other climate change risks.

After Oregon endured wildfires in fall 2020, we surveyed 1,308 Oregonians to find out more about their attitudes toward climate change policies in the wake of the event. Preliminary results suggest that Republicans and Democrats had predictably different levels of support for most policies to limit carbon emissions and reduce the risks associated with future wildfire, including changing building codes or adjusting land use planning. However, we did find some bipartisan support for changes in forest management.

Further, after years of partisan deadlock, the Oregon legislature recently passed and the governor signed legislation intended to reduce wildfire risks and carbon emissions. And at the national level, the Senate just passed a major infrastructure bill with uncommonly broad bipartisan support, which may be the largest investment in climate resilience in U.S. history. These developments may offer a breath of fresh air.

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Leanne Giordono (@lgiordono1) is a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University, researching how communities influence state and local government policy change.

Hilary Boudet (@HilaryBoudet) is an associate professor at Oregon State University who researches environmental and energy policy, social movements, and public participation in environmental decision-making.

Chad Zanocco is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University who researches how the public shapes, and is shaped by, climate, environmental, and energy policy.

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