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06-17-2024

Most people attribute extreme heat and wildfires to climate change

A recent study has revealed that U.S. adults are more confident in associating wildfires and heat with climate change compared to other extreme weather events such as hurricanes, flooding, or tornadoes. The research was based on a survey of 1,071 U.S. adults in September 2021.

The recurring biweekly AmeriSpeak Omnibus survey aims to understand public perceptions of extreme weather events and their links to anthropogenic climate change.

Climate change and human activities

Climate change refers to significant and lasting changes in weather patterns over periods ranging from decades to millions of years.

These environmental changes are primarily linked to human activities – such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes – which increase greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The gases trap heat, leading to global warming and alterations in weather patterns.

Consequences include more frequent and severe extreme weather events, rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and disruptions to ecosystems.

Addressing climate change requires global efforts to reduce emissions, transition to renewable energy, and implement sustainable practices to protect the planet for future generations.

Political views and personal experience

The findings indicate that politics and personal experiences significantly influence people’s beliefs about climate change.

Self-identified Republicans were generally less likely than Democrats to attribute extreme weather events to climate change.

However, Republicans who had personally experienced negative impacts from extreme weather were more likely to make the connection than those who had not.

Overall, 83% of respondents believed there is some link between extreme weather events and human-caused climate change, while about 17% thought climate change had no connection to extreme weather.

Public perceptions and event attribution

“There is a growing field of scientific extreme event attribution to climate change, but we know less about what the public thinks,” said Hilary Boudet, co-author of the study and an associate professor in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts.

“This work helps us to better understand public perceptions of event attribution to climate change. What the public thinks is important because these perceptions shape individual behavior and policy support.”

The survey participants were asked to rate their confidence on a scale of 1 to 5 in linking the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires, heat, rainfall/flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes to anthropogenic climate change.

For instance, a respondent absolutely certain that climate change is to blame for increased wildfires would choose “5” for that question.

The survey also inquired if respondents had personally experienced any negative impacts from these extreme weather events.

Wildfires, heat and climate change

The study found that more than 47% of respondents were “very” or “extremely confident” in linking increased wildfires to climate change. Similarly, roughly 42% expressed the same level of confidence regarding extreme heat.

Differences between political affiliations were most pronounced in the context of extreme heat and least pronounced regarding hurricanes. Additionally, factors such as race, education, and income also influenced responses.

Although the survey did not ask respondents to explain their confidence ratings, study co-author Professor Philip Mote offered some insights.

For example, the impact of wildfires extends far beyond the flames. Last year, during massive wildfires in eastern Canada, New Yorkers 1,500 miles away experienced poor air quality due to drifting smoke. In contrast, hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods tend to affect more localized areas.

Public attribution of extreme weather

The researchers also examined how closely public attribution of extreme weather events aligns with scientific consensus. The weakest alignment was observed in the context of wildfires.

This discrepancy might be due to the narrow scientific definition that only records the number of extreme fires, rather than overall fire weather. The general public likely considers all hot, dry conditions contributing to worsening wildfires amid climate change.

The researchers emphasize that understanding and improving public perceptions of extreme weather linked to climate change is crucial for maximizing the impact of mitigation efforts.

Accurate perceptions ensure that resources are directed towards actions that can make a real difference, rather than towards events that trigger the largest public response.

The study is published in the journal Climatic Change.

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