Will Climate-Related Disasters Convince Americans Global Warming is Real?


Photo credit: NASA Godard Institute of Space Studies

What if a hurricane even nastier than Katrina -- made stronger by the warmer climate -- were to barrel through Florida and leave a trail of destruction in its path? What if the American Southwest were to transform into an arid, drought-laden scorching-hot Dust Bowl and give rise to major water crises and suffering for millions? What if floods of biblical proportions were to devastate a major metropolis? Well, the way some in the green community see it, such disasters would be truly terrible -- truly, truly terrible, they stress -- but they might be necessary to wake the public up to the threats posed by climate change. As you're likely aware, there's a growing trend toward skepticism in America (I just explored this at length over at Slate). Does this idea -- that it will take a massive, climate change-related disaster to get Americans to believe in global warming -- have any merit? Grist's David Roberts doesn't think so. Yesterday, he focused his column on the subject:

"Americans won't wake up and get serious about climate change until there's a disaster." I've been hearing people say that for years, but more and more lately ... I think that's a dangerous temptation that should be strenuously avoided. First and foremost, disasters suck: They impose a great deal of suffering on innocent people. It is never a good thing when that happens. But even if the moral reason is set aside, there are still two practical reasons to doubt that disasters will prompt the kind of change climate hawks would want.
The two practical reasons he cites are:

a) Our economy is too big to be seriously impacted by such a disaster; they simply wouldn't be costly enough to force legislators to take action. And,

b) There's no reason to think that the public and elected officials would react rationally to such an event -- "People don't tend to respond to trauma with good will and foresight. They become more susceptible to demagoguery ... not less. I'm not sure a battered and fearful American public is one we can expect to embrace progressive change."

And they're good points. But I do think there's room for another dimension to the scenario Roberts describes -- that is, short of the mega-disasters described above, the generally crazier weather events that climate change increases the strength and frequency of do have an impact on American belief in climate change.

Polls repeatedly show that when the weather is really hot, more people believe in climate change. To this extent, the majority opinion of global warming is "water sloshing in a very shallow pan" as the New York Times' Andrew Revkin likes to say -- it bounces around, reflecting current events, and generally isn't moored in deep beliefs one way or the other. (Read much more about this in my survey of modern climate skepticism, Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?)

So it stands to reason that as the Southwest does continue to Dust Bowl-ify, the Mississippi continues to break flooding records, drier dry seasons give rise to more wildfires in Texas and California, and deadlier hurricanes threaten to make landfall, more people will start taking climate change more seriously. Of course, that would be dependent on a couple other factors, too: whether the media does a consistently decent job of reporting such weather events' links to climate change, and whether the denial noise machine can continue to make itself appear credible in conservative circles.

But the point is, Americans aren't dumb -- they're just mis- and uninformed about climate change. I agree with Roberts -- and I've heard the same 'disaster talk' from innumerable greens over the years -- it's absolutely wrong-minded (and hearted) to hope for such a thing. But it's worth noting that even short of a disaster, there's hope that Americans will indeed see the slightly crazier weather and start putting two and two together.

More on American Belief in Climate Change
75% of Americans Have Never Heard of Climate-Gate, Study Reveals
A 'Converted' Climate Skeptic Explains Why He Changed His Mind (Audio)

Tags: Global Climate Change | United States