Blog post

Will Hurricane Sandy increase concern about climate change?

Nov 6, 2012 by | 3 Comments

In this guest post by George Marshall (ori­gin­ally pub­lished at, he chal­lenges the received wisdom that extreme weather events will alert people to the dangers of cli­mate change.

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.

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • I live in Rhode Island, which cer­tainly was dam­aged by Sandy, but not as severely as the NY / NJ region. People are rebuilding, and sending help to the areas that need it, but there is not much talk about cli­mate change, or what we would need to do to reduce it.
    Here is a dif­ferent example, where public atti­tudes did change, and had res­ults: For a number of years the water quality of Narragansett Bay and the adja­cent ocean had been declining, but the rem­edies were seen as too costly. Then came sev­eral years of massive fish kills, beach clos­ings, and in many cases the bay and ocean smelling like a sewer. That finally broke through, and voters approved pro­jects they would not have earlier.

  • This tend­ency not to con­nect weather to cli­mate is actu­ally a hard-won lesson that people are in con­stant danger of unlearning. It used to be that every hot summer, heat­wave, storm, whatever would get con­nected to global warming. The public learnt that weather was cli­mate. Then we had a couple of cold and snowy win­ters, and the cli­mate scep­tics told jokes about ‘having to shovel the global warming off their drive­ways’. They pointed out the dis­as­terous freeze in Mongolia, the deaths from cold in northern India, the snow falling in Saudi Arabia and the Sahara. Every severe cold weather event would gen­erate mocking headlines.

    And of course the cli­mate sci­ent­ists responded by cor­rectly pointing out that weather is not cli­mate: you can’t judge cli­mate change from single weather events, vari­ations over a few months or years, or weather in rel­at­ively small areas of the globe. Climate is all about aver­ages over dec­ades and con­tin­ents. All very good. But in pushing this mes­sage out so widely to counter the scep­tics’ excite­ment at seeing snow, it has rendered the hot-weather-is-a-sign-of-climate-disaster mes­sage vul­ner­able to being countered. Pushing the weather-is-climate line is now presented as being incon­sistent, hypo­crit­ical, and exploit­at­ively oppor­tun­istic, as well as sci­en­tific­ally unjus­ti­fied. With the result that many of the ‘cli­mate con­cerned’ have now stopped using it, and have even recently voiced cri­ti­cism against it.

    However, there is still a some­what schizo­phrenic atti­tude to it because des­pite the obvious counter it’s still power­fully effective at per­suading the public on an emo­tional level. And thus there are various efforts to try to revive the argu­ment but in a safely asym­metric way, so the warm weather events can be used again. However, the jus­ti­fic­a­tions are now far more com­plic­ated and have to be used with extreme care, if you don’t want to end up saying any­thing falsifi­able. For example, wild­fires have declined over the past few cen­turies (for other reasons), droughts are more-or-less unchanged, with records of worse in the 1930s and 1950s, and we’re cur­rently enjoying the longest recorded period with no land-falling US hur­ricanes — and Sandy wasn’t all that unusual. That’s what the cli­mate stat­istics show, and it’s only by making sure most of the gen­eral public never get to see them that cred­ib­ility is maintained.

    It depends on whether you’re aiming for a short-term effect or dig­ging in for the long term. If the latter, I’d ques­tion the wisdom of pur­suing this weather-is-climate line.

  • Wow that was strange.. I just wrote an really long com­ment but after I clicked submit my com­ment didn’t show up… Grrrr.…. well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say fant­astic blog! San Francisco Roofing, 1276 7th Ave., San Francisco, CA, 94122, US, 415−800−4100

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