Severe weather may be transforming perceptions of climate change

Maybe we need to feel the sting before we can really fight global warming

Despite the United States recording its hottest May to July on record, last month a plan was launched by federal regulators to freeze fuel economy standards for cars and SUVs at 2020 levels.

If implemented, it could increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than a billion tonnes of CO2 by 2035 – that’s more than the annual emissions of Germany.

As the fingerprints of climate change become more evident in our daily lives, our political representatives seem intent on burying their heads ever-deeper into the sand. But how long can they remain so seemingly oblivious?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s climate science body, who are celebrating their 30th anniversary in Dublin this week, predicted that the planet would warm by about .2 degrees per decade in their first report, published in 1990. And so it has come to pass: the surface of the Earth is now about one degree warmer than it was in the pre-industrial period, and this has loaded the weather dice in favour of extremes.


Even countries that are considered comparatively “resilient”, like Britain and Ireland, have had wake up calls in the form of summer droughts and winter flooding. The impacts of climate change are no longer confined to the seemingly remote global south, such as sub-Saharan Africa or low-lying island states, where the least powerless and most vulnerable populations live.

Climate change is coming soon, and to a location near you and me

Climate change is coming soon, and to a location near you and me. But will experiencing these direct impacts drive greater public awareness, and when, if ever, will this translate into policy action?

This is a hard question to answer. Research by Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, and Nicholas Smith of the University of Westminster, offers some intriguing insights. For many Americans, a decade ago climate change conjured up images of retreating glaciers or calving ice shelves in far distant locations such as Antarctica, and these iconic images shaped the public imagination. Few, by contrast, associated climate change with the health and well-being of their own families or communities.

Extreme events

More recent survey results indicate that Americans are far more likely to associate global warming with the weather they have experienced, and this association is strongest following extreme events. For the researchers, this suggests that the severe weather may already be transforming perceptions.

This research confirms the experience of experts over the past two decades. Reports from the IPCC or NASA, no matter how terrifying, have been insufficient to mobilise an adequate policy response. As a species we appear more receptive to “here and now” messages underpinned by personal experience, and we find it difficult to internalise abstract information.

But now we are beginning to care. An overwhelming majority of Europeans accept the science and the imperative to act, and climate change is also seen as the leading security threat in many countries across the globe.

It is notable that as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, Americans are now more likely than ever to accept there is solid evidence of global warming.

In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted on August 15th, 64 per cent of Americans now believe more needs to be done to tackle climate change. This shifting perception of climate change may also have an impact on how new scientific reports are received.

On August 7th, for example, leading climate scientists published a report warning that the earth could enter a “hothouse” state, if “positive feedbacks” kick in that amplify the heat-trapping impact of greenhouse gasses, possibly leading to runaway warming.

Climate aficionados were quick to point out that this report offered nothing new – it was more of a summary of existing research, deftly stitched together into a cogent narrative. And yet it made a huge splash, featuring prominently on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. It was even covered impartially by Fox News, Breitbart, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – not your typical bastions of balanced climate coverage. The report was downloaded an unprecedented 270,000 times.

Could this be related to the summer heatwave? Did the scorching weather allow us to close our eyes and imagine what a “hothouse earth” might feel like, and the hellish future that might await?

As we pick over the bones of the most recent climate catastrophe in years to come, be it an inundated city, a devastating heatwave, a punishing drought, or the flood of migrants from an affected region, public opinion will surely reach a tipping point.

It is hard to imagine that this won’t translate into a more hostile reception for those peddling the reassuring myth that everything will be fine, that the science is shady, or that “the climate has always changed”.

Climate sceptics

It will become increasingly untenable for media outlets to seek “balance” by pandering to outright climate sceptics, in the same way that RTÉ, the BBC, CNN and Fox News do not invite the Flat Earth Society to debate astronomers.

Despite three decades of scientific warnings aimed at protecting human well-being, it may be one of the ironies of climate change that we need to feel its sting before we can really fight it. We may therefore be entering a new phase in the debate, opening up opportunities for scientists and climate leaders to engage, connect and communicate with wider audiences.

Citizens in Ireland and across the world seem to care more, but the jury is out on whether this will translate into more ambitious climate action. There is no guarantee that popular preferences will translate into policy, because special interests are highly mobilised against the public good, both at home and abroad.

This is an even bigger problem in the United States, the world’s climate pariah, where billions of dollars have been spent to oppose progress and confuse the electorate. US leadership is a must, and its people must find a way to break the impasse.

If the wild weather of 2018 is to be a tipping point, it will be because voters choose their politicians more judiciously, and because an “engaged public” applies more direct pressure on their political representatives.

Joseph Curtin is Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin