Do you remember the extreme weather of the last New Zealand summer? It was the country’s hottest summer on record. Plus there was the damage wrought by two ex-tropical cyclones passing through. Events like that tend to stick in the memory. At the time, there was talk of them bringing home to New Zealanders the effects of climate change and making it harder to ignore or deny them.

Was that actually so? Did the summer really change anyone’s mind about climate change? And if it did, are those minds still changed all these months later? Or have they drifted back to their original default positions?

Llewelyn Hughes, an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University, has bad news for climate change activists hoping to have won extra converts to the cause.

As much as you might expect direct exposure or even just geographical proximity to extreme weather to make people more concerned about climate change, research by Hughes and colleagues at Indiana University and Temple University in the United States indicates the impact is modest and short-lived.

Hughes, talking about the findings to academics and students as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Political Science and International Relations Programme Research Seminar Series, said he and his co-researchers had matched the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Events Database, which incorporates 122 geographical areas, with 125,000 responses to the 2010, 2011 and 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, an annual web-based survey conducted by YouGov.

The responses were to the question “From what you know about global climate change or global warming, which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion?”

Options were:

– Global climate change is not occurring; this is not a real issue

– Concern about global climate change is exaggerated. No action is necessary

– We don’t know enough about global climate change, and more research is necessary before taking any actions

– There is enough evidence that global climate change is taking place and some action should be taken

– Global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action is necessary.

The Storm Events Database catalogues 48 different types of storm and other significant weather phenomena, including excessive heat and extreme cold, heavy rain and heavy snow, and natural disasters such as droughts, tornadoes and hurricanes.

The researchers were able to cross-reference them geographically and date-wise with the Cooperative Congressional Election Study responses (which are time-stamped), controlling for such things as age, gender, years of education, church attendance and political affiliation, all of which influence opinions about climate change.

They could then test their hypotheses that:

– People who experience more frequent extreme weather will express a higher level of concern about climate change

– People’s exposure to more recent extreme weather will have a larger impact on their concern about climate change than exposure to less recent extreme weather

– People that experience more severe extreme weather will express a higher level of concern about climate change.

All three hypotheses proved correct, but in a much more limited way than expected.

“If you experienced many more frequent storms than the average for this particular year, how much did that move the needle of your opinion? It moved the needle by about 0.03 out of five,” said Hughes.

Added to that was the short duration of the effect, he said—about a month, beyond which “the effect is not discernible from noise”.

More severe extreme weather events presented a similar picture.

“The duration, the extent to which people are affected by these things in their thinking, lasts longer,” said Hughes. “One month, two months, three months, four months, it’s falling over time, but on average across all those people surveyed there is still some effect in their answers. But by the time you get to month five, it’s kind of gone again. Clearly there’s a strong decay effect.”

The findings prompted Hughes to ponder a politician’s potential response: “If I’m a politician and I want to think about climate change as an issue, how much does it really shift the needle? Are they going to start voting for different parties or it is just something small compared with other things?”

His conclusion was “let’s be somewhat depressed”.

He wondered if there might be limits to communications- and advocacy-based climate change strategies.

He said the findings suggest that “when people say we just need better science communication, maybe that’s not the way to go, because people are fickle and they forget. You might read something in the newspaper by the Chief Scientist who says something convincing; the following week you’re focused on other issues.”

A better approach might be action in support of fossil fuel divestment and renewable industries, he said.

“They might be the kind of things you want to think about rather than relying on public opinion to get you where you want to go.”

Hughes and his co-researchers chose the US for the study because of the quality and size of the data available there.

But he acknowledged that climate change was a particularly polarised and politicised issue in the US.

He and his co-researchers are now conducting a similar study in Australia.

“If it’s in an environment where climate change is not so politicised, how does that affect the relative importance of these other factors in driving people’s opinions?”

Australia also offers greater geographical precision, because “the weather data and the public opinion data is all collected at the level of the postcode and there are 30-odd thousand of those”.

Bush fires would be an added aspect. “Because there is very, very precise information on bush fires. If you want to talk about severity, there is nothing more severe than having your entire neighbourhood burn down or threatened to be burned down. In terms of its likelihood to stick in your mind.”

Researchers in New Zealand might also conduct a study, he suggested, for a more localised perspective.

Meanwhile, Hughes raised the possibility or likelihood that the effect of extreme weather events on people’s opinions wouldn’t always be so negligible.

“You can imagine there might be some kind of step-change function. Whereas in the world we’re in today, using the information we have today, this is weird but not really weird, there might be some point where people’s minds switch and they say, ‘Wow, this is pretty significant’.”

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