The Impact of Extreme Weather on Implicit Support for Green Politicians and Explicit Climate-Change Beliefs

by Tim Storer

In recent years there has been a variety of extreme weather events in the United States and around the globe. While the frequency and severity of these events cannot be conclusively linked to climate change, they have had a profound effect on public perceptions of the validity of climate change. In turn, politicians have used extreme weather events as means to bolster claims about the certainty and danger of climate change. In this study, researchers sought to see if, and how much, these events could sway public support of politicians who see climate issues as a top priority. If the events were shown to sway opinion, it would exemplify human tendency to have worldviews shaped by personal experience, and give hope to Green party politicians in the future. As shown in the study, these weather events did cause increased support for “green politicians,” though not necessarily more in populations personally affected by the storms (Rudman et al. 2013).

In order to study this, Laurie A. Rudman, Meghan C. McLean and Martin Bunzl at Rutgers University polled student views both before and after hurricanes Irene and Sandy. The subjects were drawn from the same population and had all been affected by these storms to some degree, as Rutgers is located near the coast of New Jersey (in the heart of the storms range). The polling data from pre-hurricanes was referred to as “Time 1,” and post hurricanes, “Time 2.” For subjects, the researchers polled 269 Rutgers students in October 2010 (Time 1), and 318 in October 2012 –”immediately after hurricane Sandy” (Time 2). At both time points, subjects were tested on their implicit and explicit attitudes. Their implicit attitudes recorded their attribution of various adjectives (some good, some bad) to two fictional politicians, one of whom supported pro-climate policies, and one who did not. Various control were taken for this, such as counterbalances of half the subjects using one key for the first politician and the other half using a different one. Even the names of the candidates were swapped at Time 1 to ensure control. The researchers measured explicit attitudes by (1) forcing subjects to vote for one of the two politicians, and (2) the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP), an established test that asks a variety of scaled questions on the opinions about anthropogenic climate change. Additionally, at Time 2 participants were asked to rank the degree to which they were personally affected by Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy.

The impact of Hurricane Irene on individual subjects was shown to be negligible, but Hurricane Sandy impact was correlated with higher implicit scores (tendency to favor the fictional green politician). Researchers suspect this is due to the overall larger impact of Hurricane Sandy on the subjects.

Most notably, the results showed that attitudes toward a climate-favoring politician were “more favorable” after the storm, with a strong statistically significant difference. This difference was large enough that subjects went from preferring normal politicians (Time 1) to preferring green ones (Time 2). This finding gives credence to the idea that politicians can use extreme weather events to bolster support for green policies. However, the percentage of subjects who actually voted for the green candidate did not significantly change between Times 1 and 2.

Independent of politics, the belief in anthropogenic climate change (explicit attitudes) did increase from Time 1 to Time 2, as shown by a significant increase in NEP scores. However, this increase was shown to be related to the degree in which a subject was personally affected only by hurricane Sandy, not by Irene.

The researchers note that many psychological factors surrounding these specific events, such as media portrayal and the relative impacts of the two of them, may be complicating factors. It should also be noted that at both time points, approximately two thirds of the subjects voted for the (fictional) green candidate, meaning that the population was inherently liberal and the results could have been skewed towards the liberal side of the political spectrum.

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