Scientists Give Reason to Hope. Wonder If Americans Believe in Climate Change, Yet.

Witnessing extreme weather events hasn't changed public opinion much on climate change. So, what will? It may be an issue of how we frame this topic.


We are bearing witness to climate change's devastating effects. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, which has given scientists reason to hope public dialogue is about to change. So, one team asked, is any of this news getting through to the American populace?

Populated islands are being overtaken by the rising sea levels and we're seeing our own coastlines becoming submerged. The proof is there. But these events may not be enough, according to researchers David Konisky, Charles Kaylor, and Llewelyn Hughes.

Our recent analysis reveals that Americans experiencing more unusual weather are not any more concerned about climate change,” the team wrote in an article for The Conversation.

There's a reason people are apathetic. MinuteEarth created an interesting video explaining this phenomena last year:

As the video explains, it's difficult for us to stay objective based on a number of factors. Our community, direct observations, political party, and local media outlets drive many of the perceptions we have about these weird weather events. Indeed, Konisky, Kaylor, and Hughes say the subject of climate change has become a kind of “ideological litmus test” in the United States, stating a 20 percent average difference in climate concerns between Democrats and Republicans. This may, in turn, lead people to interpret the odd weather events they're witnessing in another way.

One country that has succeeded in building a renewable infrastructure says it wouldn't have been possible if a commitment to change wasn't endorsed across their country's political parties.

Climate change needs to feel personal, says Administrator of the EPA Gina McCarthy. “It’s extremely important to recognize your own limitations about who you’re good at talking to and who’s going to believe you and who the people you're trying to influence listen to.”

“We find evidence of a modest, but discernible positive relationship between experiencing extreme weather activity and expressions of concern about climate change,” the researchers wrote in their analysis. “However, the effect only materializes for recent extreme weather activity; activity that occurred over longer periods of time does not affect public opinion.”

When we look outside of the United States, the level of concern over climate change is quite different. Our way of thinking may be different because “[i]n many developed countries we have confidence in our adaptive capacity. We think we can adapt and cope, and in many ways we can do so more than developing economies,” Dr. Debbie Hopkins, a social scientist at the University of Otago, explained in an interview with The Guardian.

What it may come down to is how we frame climate change. Researchers have found success in driving action through arguments that emphasize science, secular morality, and economy equity [which] have the potential to increase public support for climate change policies.”

Bill Nye talks regularly about climate change and the positive effects investing in renewable energy would have on communities. “[I]f the state of West Virginia or the Commonwealth of West Virginia were to change from coal burning to wind energy and solar voltaics, photovoltaics, soaking up sunlight to make electricity or even some concentrated solar where you concentrate sunlight and make heat, they would have 50,000 jobs over at least the next 20 years.”

Rather than “decapitating their mountains and destroying their streams” to get at the coal, instead they could “exploit the wind that blows through.”

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Photo Credit: Handout / Handout / Getty

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