The hottest July on record is bringing big headlines, with scientists and activists hoping that Americans will notice the changing climate and call for policy action. But the prior record suggests no easy path from climate impacts to mobilization for change. Peter Howe finds that the effects of temperature shocks and natural disasters on public opinion are limited and inconsistent. The effects tend to be on basic awareness and are not as strong as initially suspected. Sam Rowan of Concordia University finds that temperature shocks and natural disasters do not seem to generate climate policy reforms at any level of government worldwide. Climate policy is slowly moving forward but not in response to local extreme weather.
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Matt Grossmann: Will extreme weather change climate opinion or policy? This week on the Science of Politics, for the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. The hottest July on record is bringing big headlines with scientists and activists, hoping that Americans will notice the changing climate and call for policy action. But this is not the first time we’ve seen attempts to connect local weather or memorable disasters with calls for policy action. And the prior record does not suggest an easy path from climate impacts to mobilization for change.
This week I talk to Peter Howe of Utah State University about his work on climate policy opinion. He finds that the effects of temperature shocks and natural disasters on public opinion are limited and inconsistent. The effects tend to be on basic awareness and in response to local temperatures, and they’re not as strong as initially suspected. Later, I talk to Sam Rowan of Concordia University about his environmental politics paper, Extreme Weather and Climate Policy. He finds that temperature shocks and natural disasters do not seem to generate climate policy reforms at any level of government worldwide. Climate policy is slowly moving forward, but not in response to local extreme weather. They both say expecting climate policy to advance as citizens experience more of the direct impacts of climate change may be a false hope. I first talk to Peter Howe about the effects on public opinion.
Peter Howe: Well, first this is a question that social scientists have been increasingly interested in I think in part because we have seen that there has been, in some cases, an assumption among the policy community and sometimes among the physical science community that there will be some kind of feedback between climate change and policy. As the impacts of climate change become more extreme and people start to experience more extreme impacts, then they will obviously change their opinions about climate change and that will prompt policy change and hopefully lead to more climate mitigation. So there’s been an interest in setting this question of, “Well, is that true?” Do increasing experiences of extreme weather that are associated with climate change, do they actually change people’s opinions? And then does that also lead to changes in behavior and ultimately changes then in policy? So this was a meta-analysis or a review article that looked at that question, looked at studies that were published recently on how people are perceiving climate change and how their experiences with extreme weather associated with climate might be changing our opinions.
So it is true that more and more of the global population is experiencing more frequent and severe extreme weather events. We are all experiencing climate change in our local areas. We still don’t have a lot of consistent evidence that those experiences are consistently leading to changes in opinion about climate change that are durable or have an impact on policy. So there’s been just a variety of contradictory findings from different studies that have different methodologies. So we can’t draw a lot of strong conclusions about whether we can assume that there will be that kind of a feedback between the impacts of climate change and people’s perceptions and impacts on policy.
Matt Grossmann: So there’s two ways that you look at this or ways that studies have looked at it. One is to just look at actual temperature changes and temperature anomalies. And another is to look at extreme weather events, things like hurricanes that people might attribute to climate change. So what’s the state of each of those research areas? What is known and unknown about those potential effects?
Peter Howe: And I would say that those questions are interlinked, just I think necessarily because climate and weather are part of the same system, so we can experience individual extreme events, but those are all driven by broad-scale changes in the atmospheric system that we call climate change. So in terms of the evidence, we do see that in broad scales, people are reporting that they are feeling that weather in their local areas is getting warmer. We’ve seen several studies including one that I published back as part of my dissertation now in 2012, 2013, where we surveyed people in 89 countries and found that the majority were reporting that temperatures were getting warmer in their local area. So we do see these individual perceptions of changes reflecting what we’re measuring in terms of changes from a climate and weather atmospheric science perspective.
And we also see that people are self-reporting more direct experiences of extreme events associated with climate change. The complications come in the relationship between those experiences and impacts on opinions about climate change and support for policy. So one of the big complications is, a lot of studies have looked at self-reported experience with extreme weather events and how that is associated with opinions about climate change and support for climate policy and haven’t necessarily backed up those self-reported experiences with other sources of data about whether people who say they’ve experienced a hurricane were actually living in a place where a hurricane happened, for example. So what we found-
Matt Grossmann: I was going to add that the problem there might be that people who are aware of climate change or supporting action on it are just more aware and more conscious of these extreme weather events that are happening.
Peter Howe: Right. Kind of a motivated reasoning effect where, if you believe climate change is happening, you’re concerned about it, you may be more likely to say that you’re experiencing the impacts of climate change than someone who doesn’t necessarily believe climate change is happening or a threat.
Matt Grossmann: So the studies that actually look at weather or climactic events in your area don’t show as strong evidence of a relationship. Is that right?
Peter Howe: Yeah. We see mixed results. So in broad terms, one of the strongest effects that we do see, other researchers have called the local warming effect, where during periods where it is hotter than usual in a particular place, people are more likely to say that they’re concerned about climate change. But that’s a very short duration effect. And so we don’t necessarily see that over the long term. And then, we have methodological challenges, like I mentioned, people using self-reported experience rather than verifying that self-reported experience. Other things that researchers could do is we could do panel studies, and we’re increasingly trying to do that where we recruit cohorts and track climate opinions over time. And that would be one way of getting around some of these challenges associated with asking these questions at a single point in time.
Matt Grossmann: So the other issue as I saw, is that the dependent variable usually stops at awareness or something like that. And what we really need for this theory that we’re going to be able to react to climate change as it happens to be true, is that we’re going to need a lot beyond just awareness. We’re going to need people’s attitudes to change about public policy, maybe their salience of that issue relative to other issues. So is it safe to say that, once we’re asking for more than just awareness, it’s going to be harder and harder to make those links?
Peter Howe: Yeah. So we’re certainly in the early stages of understanding how extreme weather events and changes in climate might be influencing behavior. So a lot of this, the earlier work that I mentioned, is just focusing on climate opinion rather than any sort of behavioral measures. But one of the areas that I think we can draw from which I also work in is in hazards and disaster research. And in disaster research, we’ve known for a long time that disasters have a relatively short term effect on behavior and protective behavior. For example, people tend to purchase flood insurance after they’ve been affected by a flood, and then that intention drops off pretty steadily after their experience.
So one of the challenges I think is partly a communication challenge at making the link between climate change itself and the increasing impacts that people are experiencing. But also we do need more studies of impacts on behavior, and I’ve been part of contradictory studies as well in this arena. So one that I would point out is, I was part of a recent study on the effects of the public safety power shutoffs in California that were associated with extreme wildfires they had in 2019. And those affected a large area of northern California for in some cases multiple days, people were without power. And so we compared people who had experienced those power shutoffs to a match sample of people who didn’t experience those power shutoffs and found that having that experience of that impact, which is linked to climate change, did affect certain behavioral intentions.
It made people more likely to buy a gas power generator, and less likely to buy an EV. But it didn’t change climate opinions or climate policy preferences, like things like willingness to pay for climate change mitigation or adaptation efforts like expensive projects like burying power lines in California, which would reduce the need for those power shutoffs. It also didn’t change approval ratings of political leaders. So incidentally, we also have a potential backfire effect there where an experience of an impact linked to climate change increased intentions to buy gas generators, which are contradictory to climate change mitigation.
Matt Grossmann: I was going to say, that seems similar to an article that I saw you were a part of also, that looked at changes in public views across US states, finding that the overall pattern was towards seeing increased perceived importance, but that it was concentrated in these liberal states. So you kind of had both a rise, but an increase in polarization as well.
Peter Howe: And I think we’re seeing evidence of that at the individual level and at the state level. So it does seem, like I mentioned earlier, people who are already concerned about climate change are more likely to say that they’ve personally experienced an extreme weather event, and that extreme weather event is maybe reinforcing their existing beliefs, but not necessarily changing the beliefs of someone who was previously skeptical or dismissive about climate change. And so at the state level, we are seeing some of that increasing polarization in some of the questions that we ask in national surveys, particularly more about climate policy than necessarily about the perceived risk of climate change.
So this paper, we modeled changes in state level public opinion over time from 2008 to 2020 using national representative survey data. And over that 13-year period, we saw that perceived harm from climate change and the importance of the issue of climate change increased everywhere in pretty much every state. But there was more of a divergence in changes in support for climate policy between more Democratic leaning states, which tended to have increases in support for climate policy, and then more Republican leaning stage states where support for climate policies either stayed steady or decreased.
Matt Grossmann: So how should we characterize the state of American public opinion on this overall? How much do we stand out internationally? And I guess, is it true that the public is really the roadblock here? It seems like in aggregate, most people are acknowledging of human caused climate change and in favor of policies to redress it.
Peter Howe: In general, public opinion in the US about climate change is not dramatically different on average than it is in many other similar large developed countries like say Canada or Germany or the UK or Australia. We tend to have a broadly similar share of people who are concerned about climate change and support climate policies. My colleagues at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication have created what they call the Climate Change six Americas or Global Warming Six Americas Scale, which groups the American public into six audience segments associated with their opinions about climate change. And one thing that we see from those studies is that we have a significant share of the US population, who they term the dismissives. These are people who are kind of the climate change deniers or the climate change skeptics. And that share of our population is noticeably larger, notably larger than it is in peer countries.
So that is one area where we do differ. We have more people on the dismissive when it comes to climate change, and that, I think has ripple effects when it comes to policy. Having more people on the dismissive end means that they are louder. They’re also quite influential in the Republican Party, and so they may even overstate or people may overestimate the share that they are in the American public because of their prominence. But by and large, when it comes to aggregates across the American population, we are similar in a lot of ways to other countries when it comes to the proportion of people who are concerned and support policies related to climate change.
Matt Grossmann: And so we have a larger and louder minority that is dismissive, but it doesn’t seem like that category is very likely to be impacted by these extreme weather events. Is that fair to say that we’re mostly dealing with realm of people who are already on board to some extent?
Peter Howe: Yeah. We don’t have a lot of evidence that experiencing extreme weather events is going to cause people who are in that dismissive category to change their minds. But among people who are already concerned about climate change, it could potentially reinforce that concern and maybe lead to more support for policy or more changes in individual behavior.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re studying this in part because we’re interested in actually addressing climate change and understanding how to communicate about it and how public opinion might react to it. I guess, what are the broad lessons from that literature? If we can’t necessarily get people to make a big change when something’s directly affecting them, how much are these more messaging interventions about what’s happening likely to change opinion?
Peter Howe: And that’s a great question. I think communication is important. It’s good to try to tailor messages to one’s audience, but we don’t have really any evidence that there is a magic bullet, so to speak when it comes to messaging that’s going to cause people to change their minds. So I do think though, that there is some effective workaround messaging that’s going into informing messages that target political leaders and decision-makers. And that’s where some of the activist community is really focused now. So one example I would call out is that we know that political leaders tend to underestimate the level of support for pro-climate policies among their constituents. And that’s true with many other policies as well, but certainly with climate. And that’s one of the goals of campaigns like Protect Our Winters nonprofit, which I’m part of, is working to directly communicate with political leaders and help them understand better about what their constituents actually support. It’s also one of the main objectives of a group called Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which works to connect constituents directly with their political leaders and help educate them about what policies their constituents support. And it’s also one of the outcomes of the Yale Climate Opinion Maps project, which I was part of, starting back in 2015 through the Yale program on climate change communication, where we wanted to help political leaders better understand what their constituents actually think about climate change and what sorts of policies they support.
Matt Grossmann: So one of the reasons to cover this now is because we’ve just had a very hot July and some media coverage and some scientific communication trying to tie that to climate change. What’s your impression so far of how that potential relationship is being communicated and how likely that might be to change opinion?
Peter Howe: Yeah, I think the media is certainly doing a much better job at putting extreme events like the heat we’ve experienced this summer into the broader climate context. But I think messages are still somewhat inconsistent and we have a ways to go about communicating the fact that the extreme heat that we’re seeing here in the U.S. is part of broader global trends that are consistent with global warming and climate change. One of the great examples that I would like to mention though is a project called Climate Matters, which is coordinated by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and Climate Central. And that is a project that is working with local TV weather casters all over the country to help them situate the climate change story in their reporting about local weather.
So putting their daily weather forecast into a broader climate context and helping their viewers understand how the extreme events like our heat waves are linked and part of a broader pattern. And that Climate Matters project is now working with weathercasters in I think over 90% of media markets across the country. So it has really broad reach and it’s a really important messenger who they’re working with, local TV weathercasters, because that is often the closest for a lot of members of the public get to climate science in their everyday life. It’s people with a meteorology background who are doing the daily weather cast.
Matt Grossmann: So we have obviously some uncertainty all the time in attributing trends to climate change and then that’s heightened whenever we’re trying to isolate effects on specific events, or one month of weather. So how should we think about the trade-off there, given that both we might not be able to fully explain the science, but then we also might face an issue if we have a cool July next year or a season that doesn’t seem as strong with extreme weather?
Peter Howe: Yeah, this is an area where my understanding of the accurate messaging has evolved over the years recently. So it used to be that the most accurate statement was that we could not necessarily attribute any single extreme weather event to climate change. That was a safe bet. However, that these are events that are consistent with what we would expect to see under a scenario of changing climate and global warming. But I think potentially more accurate current message is that every single weather event that we experience is affected by climate change. Climate change [inaudible 00:22:59]. Human caused emissions have changed the global climate system to the extent that we can’t disentangle those from any particular event. So we can’t necessarily say that an event was caused or not caused by climate change, everything is connected. So yeah, it is a challenge though, I completely acknowledge when it comes to communication about accurately representing the science. We don’t have enough evidence to say necessarily either way.
And on the one hand there is, we are likely to see a more variable climate with climate change too. So we may see more extreme cold snaps while on average the climate is warming as there may be potential destabilizations in the jet stream for example, that might lead to more extreme cold weather during some times of year. However, I think from the evidence that we do have in social science, environmental social science, those effects are likely to be temporary if they do lead to depressed concern about climate change, for example. And unfortunately, we are continuing to see on average a warming climate, and so we are going to be seeing more and more aggregate events that are consistent with what people expect to see associated with climate change. The more heat waves, more coastal flooding, more extreme hurricanes.
Matt Grossmann: So the other interview for this episode is with Sam Rowan, and he studies the same inputs as you, the extreme weathers and temperature shocks, but is interested in actual policy changes across governments associated with those changes and doesn’t really find very, very strong of a relationship, if any. So I guess how would you fit your findings in with those? On the one hand, it is kind of a higher bar because if public opinion was the channel, then it would have to be enough public opinion change to lead to political activity. On the other hand, it might allow some other routes to change, like you talked about elected officials being directly or appointed officials being directly impacted, and yet we still don’t seem to find much there.
Peter Howe: Yeah, I would say those results are broadly consistent with what we’ve found when looking at the individual level, with respect to public opinion. We still have, like I mentioned earlier on, there’s a lot of inconsistencies in findings on weather experience with these kinds of extreme weather events, actually changes opinions about climate change. So I’m not surprised to see that we are seeing limited if any effects on policy because we have seen such inconsistent effects in public opinion. However, one thing that I mentioned in my review article is that we’re still in the early stages of the changes in weather that we’re going to see associated with climate change. Even if we were to enact extreme mitigation policy at the global level now, the weather’s going to continue changing for some time. So there are more extreme experiences in the pipeline, and I would hesitate to conclude from research on experiences up to this point that future impacts will not cause changes in opinion or policy because they are likely to be more extreme.
Matt Grossmann: And how should we think about potential paths through which these changes in climate might actually lead to changes in policy? So we’d have this public opinion path, but you could think of a longer term impact, something might help produce activists, might change the opinions of a whole cohort as they were kind of starting in politics. So I guess, what are the paths by which we might see some effects, they just might take longer to develop?
Peter Howe: We don’t necessarily see these aggregate changes in opinion, but I think certainly we do have the potential for these kinds of extreme events associated with climate change to cause some pretty severe individual-level experiences which can result in social movements and could produce activists. And so that is certainly a pathway through which policy may change in the future. And when it comes to cohort effects, yeah, we are seeing that younger people are more likely to say that they have directly experienced the impacts of climate change and they’re more likely to say that they are concerned about climate change and more likely to support climate policy. So we may be starting to see some cohort effects appear, although it’s a little bit maybe too soon to tell in that respect.
Matt Grossmann: And I guess what would be the mechanism for that? I mean is this a global pattern where you might really connect it with increasing salience and experience, or is this more likely to be just like where young people are affiliating with the left, they’re more likely to take on all of the attitudes of the left kind of thing?
Peter Howe: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit too soon to tell either way. I think there may be some of both of that. So when it comes to direct experiences, there are direct impacts of climate change that young people are more likely to directly experience. One example I would cite is the heat waves that have affected the U.S. over the past couple of years, there is a sizable share of public school buildings in the country that do not have air conditioning and have had to adjust schedules or cancel days of schooling because it’s just been too hot to teach, to hold classes in their buildings. And so there are certain kinds of experiences like that that young people are more likely to directly experience. Also, we’re seeing kind of broader scale changes in population and migration that are leading to population growth in more climate exposed areas. In the U.S., we’ve had population growth for a long time being the greatest in the sunbelt and our warmest states.
These are places that are vulnerable to some really severe extreme events associated with climate change. For example, if we were to see a power outage in the city of Phoenix during an extreme heat wave, there’s a recent paper that came out that modeled the effects of that and it forecasts that over a multi-day heat wave, we would see more than 50% of the population needing access to an emergency room, needing emergency medical services if there were to be a power outage in that city during heat wave. So we’re seeing some of both, I would say, some changes in the dynamics of climate change and where it’s affecting people that may lead to some more potential changes in policy. But also, like you mentioned, there is a broad scale tendency for younger people to be more associated with left movements, which is the pro-climate side as well globally.
Matt Grossmann: So what’s on the agenda for you now and what do you see as kind of the most important ways that this research is moving forward?
Peter Howe: We’ve come back to the issue of extreme heat several times, and that’s one of the areas that I’ve been focused on studying over the past few years, is how the public is experiencing and responding to the risk of extreme heat. And that’s an area that I’m continuing to be focused on. And heat in general is one of the less studied health hazards, despite the fact that it is the deadliest weather related hazard in the U.S. It causes more deaths every year than floods or tornadoes or hurricanes. But it’s very difficult to communicate the risk of extreme heat despite the fact that it is a risk to everybody. And it’s one that as we’ve seen this year, can be quite severe. And a couple weeks ago, over a third of the U.S. population was under an excessive heat warning issued by the National Weather Service.
But we still don’t have a great understanding of how the public perceives the risk of heat and how people are behaving, what kinds of responses people are taking, even though we know that there are some pretty extreme inequities in responses and access to mitigation regarding heat, like access to air conditioning and inequities associated with urban heat islands in often poorer parts of cities. So that’s an area that I’m continuing to focus on and we hope to understand better how the public is experiencing this specific risk associated with climate change and how we can improve our responses to it.
Matt Grossmann: We are thinking about future weather anomalies, and extreme heat and disaster will get bigger. Other things could change over time as well, and one thing that unfortunately is happening in the U.S. is this polarization that we’ve been talking about and a large conservative media apparatus and set of activists that is very, very ready to take on scientific communication surrounding climate change and especially relations to current events. So is there a chance that the past may not be prologue for that reason as well, that in the future these will have to enter a polarized political debate that will impact how citizens receive this information?
Peter Howe: Yes. Yeah, that’s a risk that I’ve been worried about for a while. And I think we have started to see somewhat, on social media for example, in responses to public health warnings about heat. Because it is so directly associated with climate change, the most obvious direct impact of a warming climate is more heat waves. We may be seeing more distrust of public health authorities and the National Weather Service and weathercasters who are trying to alert the public about these risks. And that’s something that I think we need to… We and scientific communication scholars and the scientific community in general need to focus on understanding ways to potentially improve communication or better understand how this kind of polarization might actually be leading to greater vulnerability to weather hazards.
Matt Grossmann: As [inaudible 00:35:22] suggests, there’s at least summaries to expect public opinion to move. But that does not necessarily mean policy will follow. I next talked to Sam Rowan about the relationship between extreme weather and climate policy. There, the findings may be even more bleak.
Sam Rowan: After every one of these natural disasters or extreme weather events, you see in the papers, all these op-eds about these being wake-up calls. This is a bellwether for climate change in the state. And a lot of people, I was curious about whether there is some kind of an effect of these extreme weather events on politics or on society. And when I was looking, I found in the literature existing studies about public opinion and economic damages. So I thought the natural next step would be to think about is there an overall effect of extreme weather events on climate policy? I set out to think about whether there is some kind of an effect of extreme weather events on climate policy that builds on this earlier literature about public opinion and economic damages.
And in the statistical analysis, I really found no effect. There’s really no consistent effect of extreme weather events on any climate policy outcome. I tried to study a range of different climate policy outcomes and a range of different measures of natural disasters and temperature shocks to think about what is maybe the most generous specification for this relationship. But I couldn’t really find any evidence that there’s one in the literature.
Matt Grossmann: We might think of kind of two processes which you looked at here. One is an extreme weather event like a hurricane, and if there’s more of them or bigger impacts from them, then that might cause policymakers to react. And then another is just, I guess heat waves or just overall temperature changes. And either one of those would be important to actually achieving a policy change for people to notice those things.
Talk about the state of the research as you see it on those two potential mechanisms and how they might operate.
Sam Rowan: In terms of direct effects, whether there’s something about the weather that changes how legislators act, that’s quite a difficult question to study actually, because of the way that institutions are designed. It’s hard to get measures of how politicians vote unconstrained from any kind of partisan influence or party politics or institutional rules. So there could be an effect there that is direct, but I haven’t seen any studies that look at that very clearly.
The indirect effect to me seems pretty plausible. And we have these findings in literature that suggest it is at least likely. And this is because extreme weather events change public opinion, at least in the short term. In survey answers, people are much more concerned about climate change if they’ve just experienced particularly hot days or heat waves or other kinds of natural disasters or extreme weather events.
And when I started the paper actually in 2020, I think the findings were pretty strong. I think the first papers on this had pretty large effects. And then over time, as you see more people working on this question, you see a greater range of published findings. And now I think that maybe the overall effect is probably a bit weaker than we might have thought even a few years ago. We can talk a bit about the publication sociology there and the way that certain findings come out and not others.
But then the other effect is kind of through economic damages. And there’s a really large literature here that’s very robust that shows that the experience of extreme weather events and even things that seem kind of benign, like particularly hot years, are really damaging for the economy.
A really high-quality study in science found that in the US, a year that’s one degree warmer on average is associated with 1.2 percentage points of GDP loss. That’s a pretty huge effect when you think about a country the size of the US, that’s billions and billions of dollars of economic damages. And there’s lots of studies that find similar results on things like labor productivity or agricultural productivity. There’s all kinds of different ways that extreme weather events create these kinds of economic damages.
And so if you think about pairing this literature on public opinion with this literature on economic damages, you have these two kinds of pathways through which extreme weather events can be linked to demands for climate action. You might have interest groups mobilizing around climate when public opinion is more attuned to climate change, and also firms and interest groups with economic stakes are going to be motivated as well to do something or pressure governments to do something to prevent further economic damages as well. That was kind of the reason why we might see these kinds of indirect effects.
Matt Grossmann: And then obviously we didn’t find the relationship, so what are the potential kind of sources of leakage in that path from public opinion or economic damage to policy change?
Sam Rowan: I mean, if you think about the story there, a lot of things kind of need to go right to connect the dots between extreme weather events and climate policy. And so there could be all kinds of ways that this causal path breakdown, maybe extreme weather events aren’t enough of a focusing event or trigger to actually get this kind of mobilization. Maybe this is an effect on public opinion. But it’s too hard to sustain any kind of mobilization around extreme weather events for long enough to actually affect policy. Or you could see counter mobilization. You could see anti-climate action groups kind of weaponizing extreme weather events to ramp up their efforts to lobby politicians to suppress climate action.
There’s different kinds of things that need to happen along the way, things that need to go right to connect the dots between extreme weather events and climate policy. And there’s lots of places along the way that those things can break down.
Matt Grossmann: You studied this across the world and across levels of government, and I know there wasn’t an overall effect and you gave it the best chance you could, but was there any evidence that it might matter in some [inaudible 00:41:43] sometimes, or that we just may not have enough evidence in some places to know whether it would matter?
Sam Rowan: The way I thought about this in the paper was to look for heterogeneous effects. If we think that one of the main mechanisms through which extreme weather events can lead to climate policy, it’s through these things like mobilization, civil society mobilization. Then maybe the effect would be stronger or present in democracies where it’s easier to organize freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, those kinds of things. And the effect would be null in autocracies where it’s more difficult to mobilize. But I didn’t find any evidence that you have these kinds of differences across contexts.
I also looked at this between rich and poor countries. Maybe there’s a reason why rich countries already have some public policy process in place that they can kind of ratchet up or build on to reform climate policy following extreme weather events, but maybe poor countries, developing countries are further behind. It would be a much larger change to get that infrastructure in place. But again, we didn’t find any evidence that there’s differences between rich and poor countries and the effects.
Matt Grossmann: And what about the potential outcomes? What kinds of policies are we talking about here? And are there any categories where maybe we haven’t assessed the effects on, maybe more symbolic policies or ones that are maybe more tied to adaptation?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. There’s no perfect measure of climate policy outcomes across countries. There’s no kind of DW nominate score for countries on climate. And so what I tried to do instead was to be holistic and gather a bunch of different climate policy outcomes and see if there’s any arena where you see this kind of effect.
One of the most obvious ones is to look at the number of laws passed that pertain to climate change. That was the first outcome I started with, but I didn’t find any kind of significant effect there. So I moved on to think about other indicators and it quickly became quite easy to just gather more and more of these relevant climate policy variables, and I ended up with about 10 or 11 in the paper.
One of them is the effect of carbon price in a country, which is a measure of how high is a country’s carbon tax in dollars per ton, and then what percentage of that country’s carbon emissions were actually priced by that policy? If you have a very high carbon price, but it only applies to say the steel sector, your effective carbon price is watered down. And so I’d looked at that as a measure as well and didn’t find any evidence that countries are kind of ratcheting up their carbon prices following these extreme weather events, and looked at a few other outcomes in international politics about ratifying climate treaties and providing climate finance. But again, the same story.
Matt Grossmann: Despite this, we have seen some climate policy advances and we are seeing lots of countries and places and some policies, and there does seem to be an increase over time. If not actual climate impacts, what are the things that they are responding to?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. I mean, this is kind of the million-dollar question. If we knew the answer to what drives climate policy, everything else would be downstream from that.
I think at one level the answer is kind of obvious. The answer is that when pro-climate groups in society are stronger than anti-climate groups in society, you get climate policy passed. That kind of pushes the question further back and says, well, what do you need to do to strengthen the hand of climate action groups?
I think one thing that I’m quite optimistic about are the role of protests. If you think of climate protests around the world in the past five or six years, it’s been a huge mobilization, especially of youth around climate action. And there’s kind of a demonstration effect of protests that kind of like extreme weather, it raises the salience of the issue in society. It also has this kind of a nice second order effect about signaling to other people, how many people actually care about climate change. If you think that you care about climate change but no one else does, but then you see tons of people out in the street protesting about climate change, you then see that you have more kind of compatriots. It’s kind of the second order effect there of climate protests. They’re also kind of fun to go to. I don’t know how much you get to protests, Matt, but it’s kind a nice day out.
I also think that things like lawsuits could be interesting here. Lawsuits when you can have a group that sues companies or sues the government and wins, then you can have kind of a court mandated increase in client policy. That’s what’s happening right now in Germany and I think in the Netherlands where court rulings have found that those governments climate policies are not sufficient to meet the goals that they’ve actually set for themselves in the Paris Agreement. They’re kind of throwing policy back to legislatures to set stronger policy.
That’s another arena kind of moving outside of the formal political process through protests or doing so through the courts. It could be other kinds of forums or other kinds of venues where the deck is less stacked against pro climate action groups compared to some legislatures.
Matt Grossmann: That sounds plausible, but it still seems like those actors might be motivated by actual climate changes, especially if we think that climate changes might be associated with some changes in public opinion, some changes in media coverage as you mentioned, don’t all of those things usually help to stimulate protests and lawsuits and interest group activity?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. You mean whether all of these kinds of activities are downstream from local extreme weather events?
Matt Grossmann: Well, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just that it’s a global pattern and everyone’s seeming to be affected, but it does seem like these people aren’t reacting to nothing. They’re reacting to what they see.
Sam Rowan: Yeah. I mean, I think that overall we are seeing a global increase in climate policy. The timing of these policies is not driven by local extreme weather events. That’s kind of what the finding is in my paper. I’m not trying to say that there’s been kind of no climate policy globally. Of course, it’s also insufficient. We know that the laws on the books across countries are not sufficient to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement to prevent more than 1.5 degrees of global warming. So we need to be kind of ratcheting that process up.
I think in a sense too, we should try to find ways to think about climate change as more than just about the weather. The weather is still a kind of abstract concept. It’s inherently changeable. You have storms one week, you have clear skies the next. That memory of extreme weather events fades. People experience extreme weather events differently. Like a hot day for me and a hot day for you might mean different things. I think that we need to find ways to discuss climate change as being more than just about the weather.
And you see activists kind of taking the lead here as well. There’s been a real reframing of the climate problem in terms of air pollution. There’s been 60,000 premature deaths in the US every year from air pollution. So there’s been 6 million premature deaths from air pollution globally every year. And the climate transition would pay for itself just if you were to price in all those deaths from premature deaths from air pollution.
And then things about the cost of energy. We know that the price of fossil fuels is pretty volatile in global markets. Supply shocks to oil and gas can really impact household budgets. In the UK this year, inflation shot up very, very high on household energy bills. But the promise with solar and wind is that as we roll out these technologies, they’re getting so cheap that it will pay for itself. The findings from a research group at Oxford has modeled this out and thinks that basically if you build out enough renewables, they become so cheap that the energy transition is actually basically free when you think about the comparison between spending that money on extraction and continued upkeep of fossil fuel infrastructure.
There’s all kinds of other reasons I think, around air pollution and cost of energy and even holding polluters accountable, holding people who made decisions at Exxon to lie to the public for decades about climate change accountable for their actions in this process could be other ways of motivating climate action beyond just kind of drought.
Matt Grossmann: You characterize it as kind of pro-climate action and anti-climate action forces in the United States that pretty readily maps onto the political right versus the political left. And you might think about a potential kind of off-ramp for climate change to produce climate action would be that it’s actually polarizing, that it motivates the political left but not the right.
Did you see any sign of that internationally in your data, and how much can we generalize from that pattern that might be more US specific?
Sam Rowan: Yeah, I did look at this in the paper about whether right-wing governments or left-wing governments are more willing to act on climate or the partisan polarization on climate. I’m not an expert on US politics, so I’m trying to be careful here. But I think that there’s been such a polarization across issues in the US that I’m not sure how much more polarized climate is than other things like healthcare or immigration or democratic accountability.
Across nationally, I know some studies have found that there is partisan polarization on climate, but that this varies a lot across context as well. So it’s not like a unequivocal unidirectional polarization across all countries. I’d be a bit skeptical or hesitant to lean too hard into the partisan polarization around climate story.
Matt Grossmann: We’re talking after a very hot July in North America and to some extent globally, and there have been the classic pattern of stories that you talked about attributing heat waves to climate change and asking whether is it enough now kind of talking about the mechanisms that we have done. It seems like your findings might suggest that that’s a mistake, that climate activists, scientists and the media should not be making a huge deal out of a particular heat wave that people are experiencing, given that we don’t know whether that will have any downstream effects. Is that right?
Sam Rowan: I’m a bit torn on this too because it seems like an implication of the finding is that it’s a waste of time to attribute extreme weather events to climate change because they don’t have this tangible effect on policy. But I’m still a bit hesitant to lean too far into that. I think to the extent that what really needs to happen is greater organization, collective action mobilization amongst pro-climate groups, then maybe these messaging or messaging around extreme weather events, connecting it to climate change can help solidify some of that coalition. I’d like to see more research looking at that specifically. Do you get more campaign donations or contributions to civil society groups that work on climate following these kinds of disasters?
But I think that there’s probably no harm at this point in connecting extreme weather events to climate change and reminding people this is foreshadowing what future climate change will be. These are kind of the smaller local impacts of the future climate crisis.
There is a study actually met by Zuette High and Rebecca Perlman looking at when politicians attribute wildfires to climate change, how does that affect citizens’ perceptions of their [inaudible 00:54:01] or knowledge of the issue? And this is a study recently done in California, and they find that when politicians, in their survey experiment, mention climate change or attribute wildfires to climate change, that Republican respondents now rate those politicians as less credible, less competent, less sympathetic, but that it doesn’t change the opinions that independents or Democrats have towards those politicians. So there, I guess you could see some of this backlash. That would be, I guess, with politicians, with elected leaders connecting the dots between extreme weather events and climate change.
Matt Grossmann: So I also spoke with Peter Howe for this episode, and he studies the effects of temperature shocks on public opinion. And as we’ve discussed, there are some studies that find effects, but overall, the effects are relatively short-term and relatively limited and seem to be more about the temperature changes than the other extreme weather events. I guess, how much is that public opinion pathway what you had in mind in this study and how do you think that the findings fit together?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. I think that this is an interesting example of how research findings evolves over time. You have some initial studies that show quite large effects. I think the first study that I saw in this, I think it was a one-degree-Celsius temperature shock gives a one-sixth-standard-deviation change in public opinion or public concern about climate change, which I think is a pretty generous effect, big effect. It’s not huge, but it’s not nothing.
And then of course, as the literature develops, you have more people who are all working on the same kind of question, you have a broader range of findings that are eventually published. And then in these meta-analyses, you find that the first findings in a literature are often the biggest or the flashiest findings and that the average finding is much closer to zero, not necessarily zero.
Not to say that any of these studies themselves are wrong or something, the research itself is problematic, but just that, when consumers of research, you look for papers, the papers that have the most flashy findings or the most exciting ones, we see those ones first, and then over time, as you learn more about a topic, you see a broader range of findings.
So when I was writing this paper, starting in 2019, 2020, the first published results here were these large effects, and that got me thinking and motivated to keep working on this question. And then over time, as the paper progresses, you see more and more papers come out that show short-lived effects or that depend on context or other kinds of responding characteristics. And you should think that, overall, the effect of these weather shocks is smaller than we might’ve initially thought.
Matt Grossmann: It’s kind of similar to your findings about changes in policies, globally. He still finds that public opinion in terms of awareness of climate change and attribution is still increasing over time. It’s not increasing everywhere the same. It’s more increasing in liberal states than conservative states in the US, for example, but it does raise for me the possibility that maybe we’re expecting things to be local, but really, there’s just a time series here where we are all experiencing more potential effects of climate change and, overall, levels of engagement increase any chance that there’s a mechanism that is less local, but still does involve people seeing potential impacts.
Sam Rowan: Yeah. If you think about how we have national media markets, you would have extreme weather events in California, and people in Arizona read the same newspapers, same news websites. They’re all [inaudible 00:57:48] exposed to heightened media coverage around climate. And I assume that that effect would generalize as you move further from the actual location of an extreme weather event. So if we’re all reading the same news in the same media market, then you might think there’s an additional effect of being in the location, but that everyone is, in a sense, experiencing the same kind of weather shock by virtue of all being exposed to the same information about it.
Matt Grossmann: One of the things that Howe was, I guess, holding out hope for is that there just weren’t big enough effects or big enough climate impacts yet to see the kinds of effects that he eventually expects. So it’s a sort of maybe you ain’t seen nothing yet or maybe the types of impacts that we’re seeing, while they look large to some people, still won’t approach the kinds of effects that people might eventually experience from climate change. So what do you think about that? Is there any sign in your data that either the very largest impacts had some effect or how should we think about studying something with past data at a time when the climate impacts might be increasing?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. I think there are two answers here. One is this claim that, in the future, the effects will be larger and then we will see the effect. It’s inherently unfalsifiable. It’s like, always somewhere in the future, a larger weather shock, a larger temperature shock that will finally crack the process wide open. And I think we should be thinking more about the underlying political dynamics here rather than there’s going to be some kind of [inaudible 00:59:36] in the future that’s going to, from heaven, to send this temperature shock large enough to fix our politics.
At the same time, though, in the past data, there are very large weather shocks. We have certainly very large hurricanes and other kinds of natural disasters. And then there are years within countries where you have two-degree, even three-degree temperature anomalies. And those are huge, huge weather anomalies. So if we think that, in the future, larger climate impacts will unlock greater climate action, we’ve actually already seen, in the past, a few examples of relatively large shocks that have not done so. So I’m skeptical of this kind of line of reasoning. It’s very tempting to think that, in the future, this problem will solve itself, but I think that we don’t see any real evidence in the past and it’s a dangerous proposition to think that this problem will be fixed in the future by the collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf or something.
Matt Grossmann: We talked about how maybe there’s no harm to highlighting the connection between extreme weather and climate change, even if it doesn’t have an effect on policy change, but of course, these are uncertain relationships and it could be that next July will be unseasonably cool or that there’ll be a decline in some category of extreme weather events in a politically important place. And obviously, there would be an infrastructure to make the same kind of argument in reverse if that were a case. So does that give any pause about making these connections or does it say that, well, if it’s not much impact one way, then it’s unlikely that that would seriously slow down climate action if we did just happen to have an inopportune reversal of one of these potential effects?
Sam Rowan: We need to find ways to articulate climate action as more than just about the weather because the weather is changeable. You have hot years and you have dry years, but then you have wet years and you have cooler years. Of course, the overall trends and projections are quite negative, but you do have annual and seasonal changes in weather. So I think trying to find ways to articulate the urgency of climate action around things that are perhaps more proximate in people’s lives, like air pollution or cost of energy, could be ways to skirt around some of these concerns about the changeability of weather, year on year.
Matt Grossmann: So I guess, given that you went through the exercise of predicting climate policy and you were trying to look for the effect of actual climate events, but in the process, you investigated some other things that might predict climate policy, so I guess what is the state of that kind of generic research area and what, even in your controls, do you think people should know about what really drives climate policy?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. There’s some early research about endowments. So countries that have larger supplies of renewable resources tend to have stronger client policies. So places like Norway that have huge reserves of hydro tend to have stronger client policy. Of course, if you have large reserves of fossil fuels, that’s the opposite direction. Again, Norway is a major oil and gas exporter, so endowments play a large role.
I’m excited to learn more about the effects of mobilization. So in a paper I’m working on with some co-authors, actually, it’s just accepted at the British Journal of Political Science, we looked at the effect of climate protests on political speech. So this is in the UK. We have all these data on hundreds of Fridays for Future protests in the 2017, 2019 parliament, and then we matched these in time and place to their legislators, their MPs. And so we look at how MPs are speaking about climate change on Twitter and speaking about climate change in the House of Commons following local protests and their constituencies.
And we see that British politicians in this period are more likely to discuss climate change on Twitter after these youth protests in their constituencies. And we see, at the same time, an overall change in the way that MPs talk about climate change during this time period. So they’re getting more language of urgency and more language of emergency and less technical language around decarbonization in their speech on climate change. So excited to think more about ways that political mobilization, things like protests, can affect the sense of urgency that politicians face to act on this problem.
Matt Grossmann: And what about policy itself? I think we’ve had Bary Rabe on before, who’s talked about all the different places that carbon pricing schemes have failed or that we’ve seen backtrack on, but we also had Leah Stokes on, who talked about some ways that early small climate policies tended to develop future climate policies. So what should we think about that? When countries act, does that mean that maybe more policy might be on the way as people experience the policy or does that mean that they experience economic impacts or some loser mobilizes, and thus climate action doesn’t bring more climate action?
Sam Rowan: Yeah. You can see both sides of that argument. I think the gradualism or incrementalism of policy has long been a goal or a mode of doing climate policy. I think there’s some real strengths to it of having a relatively low carbon price that gets stronger over time or maybe relatively high subsidies that phase out over time is a similar way to think about how those policies could work.
One thing that I think isn’t discussed so much in the research, but is an interesting idea, is finding ways to insulate or buy out groups that are very recalcitrant in the process. So if you are a utility company that has huge investments in coal-fired power plants or gas-fired power plants, you have an income stream that is locked in for the next 10, 20, 30 years and you stand to lose quite a bit from climate action. So you’re going to lobby quite hard against it. And thinking creatively about how do you use finance to buy out those agreements could be an interesting way to think about insulating some of the losers from climate policy while still getting the desired air pollution and climate benefits from shutting down this fossil fuel infrastructure as early as possible. So I’d be curious to see more creative thinking and policy designs that could unlock climate action by maybe buying out some of these polluters.
Matt Grossmann: And was there any evidence in your data in terms of the chunkiness of the policies? In other words, was it the case that you had one country and, once it started acting, there’s a new bill every year or are these pretty sparse throughout your data?
Sam Rowan: I can’t remember exactly what the distribution looks like. I know that most countries, most developed democracies are enacting new climate law every year or two. Of course, the significance of those laws varies. Some of them are very ambitious omnibus bills. Others take more of the edges. So there is this gradual, consistent climate policymaking, but it’s a question, as well, about how substantial are those policies and are we moving quickly enough to prevent the worst climate impacts?
Matt Grossmann: And anything else you want to chat about what you’re working on now or anything we didn’t get to that you want to include?
Sam Rowan: Well, maybe I’ll just plug this paper with Chris Berry and Tom Fleming on climate protests that you all can read very soon in the British Journal of Political Science, where we look at hundreds of youth protests in the UK around climate action and the way that politicians, members of parliament have chosen to speak about climate change on Twitter, and then the House of Commons following these demands from their constituents. So we find that MPs are more likely to tweet about climate change following these local protests. And it’s a really cool finding because we can really get these protests at the daily level located in place. And of course, MPs are speaking daily on Twitter and we can match them to their constituencies. So it’s a really nice, very crisp design there that we can identify these effects quite cleanly.
Matt Grossmann: And was that cross-party or was it limited to-
Sam Rowan: Yeah, it’s cross-party. We see both labor politicians and conservative politicians tweeting more about climate change following these protests. The effect is larger amongst labor MPs, but it doesn’t go away amongst conservatives. So this is an example, as well, of ways that other countries than the US are less polarized on climate. There is growing grumbling around net zero in the UK, but they’re so much further ahead on this than the US is that, I guess, at some point, the debates get more stark because the implications are more zero-sum, but the UK is really much more, at least in the 2017, 2019 period that we looked at, really more of a valence issue rather than a polarized issue.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you like this discussion, I recommend these episodes next, all linked on our website, Polarized Opinion on Climate Change and Messages that Move Conservatives, When and Where Can Climate Policy Succeed, When Public Opinion Goes to the Ballot Box, How Donor Opinion Distorts American Democracy, and Policymakers Follow Informed Expertise. Thanks to Peter Howe and Sam Rowan for joining me. Please check out a meta-analysis of the relationship between climate change experience and climate change perception and extreme weather and climate policy and then listen in next time.