September 5, 2016, by Tim Radford
Astronaut’s view of the eye of the storm as the ferocious Hurricane Patricia prepares to strike the US Gulf Coast in 2015. Image: NASA/Scott Kelly
Scientists have shown that hurricanes are hitting the US harder than ever, yet many Republican-voting men remain unswayed by evidence of climate change.
LONDON, 5 September, 2016 – Whether US citizens believe that hurricanes are getting more violent and more destructive depends on whether they have been in one lately – and also whether they are female, and vote Democrat.
If you are male, and tend to vote Republican, you may be less likely to accept the reality of climate change, say scientists who have been looking at public attitudes in exactly those coastal places most often hit by shrieking winds, storm surges and pounding seas.
And that is in the face of evidence that by all objective measures – wind speed, storm surge height, and economic damage – hurricanes are now hitting the US harder than ever.
“Climate change has become a signature political issue that polarises the American public,” the scientists report in the International Journal of Climatology.
Extreme weather events
“Due to its political implication, Republicans generally refuse to accept the existence of climate change out of fears of massive governmental intervention. This resistance to climate change is even reflected in their views towards extreme weather events that are arguably linked to climate change.”
Scientists have consistently and repeatedly confirmed the objective reality of climate change, but in the US in particular, the issue continues to be politically divisive, and the evidence is sometimes met with outright denial.
Researchers from Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Princeton University in New Jersey took a close look at the results of a detailed survey of a random sample of US residents from parishes along the US Gulf Coast that had been hit by hurricanes in a 20-year span.
Eight of the 10 most economically-damaging hurricanes since 1980 have happened since 2004. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused damages amounting to $154bn and $68bn respectively − in what economists called “constant dollars”, adjusted for inflation.
“We wanted to know how people perceive the threat of hurricanes, and what influences their perceptions”
By comparison, Hurricanes Andrew and Floyd, in 1992 and 1999 respectively, caused $46bn and $9bn in damage. Hurricane Patricia in 2015 is so far the strongest Western hemisphere storm on record, with maximum sustained winds of 215 miles (346 kilometres) an hour.
Researchers have repeatedly warned that global warming can only stoke up the frequency of extreme weather events, and that the cost of hurricanes to the US in particular is set to rise.
And yet people are moving to the coasts. The population in coastal areas of the US has grown at a rate 3.5 times greater than for the US as a whole, the scientists say. Between 1960 and 2008, the population along the Gulf Coast grew 150%, by 8.4 million, along with investment in oil and gas infrastructure, resort hotels, yacht clubs and marinas, and luxury homes.
So more people put themselves and their property in harm’s way. As one of the researchers − Princeton civil and environmental engineer Siyuan Xian − put it, this suggests “a gap between the reality of the storm trends and how people interpret those trends”.
Six hurricanes form in the Atlantic each year, on average, although there have been as many as 15 in one single season. “If you perceive a higher risk you will be more likely to support policies and take action to ameliorate the impacts,” Xian says.
Hit by hurricanes
“We wanted to know how people perceive the threat of hurricanes, and what influences their perceptions. This information will help guide how agencies communicate risk, and what policies and actions are proposed to make communities resilient to these storms.”
So the researchers turned to a landmark study − the 2012 Gulf Climate Change Survey − to probe not just responses to storms but the beliefs, biases, opinions and political affiliations of the residents of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, in townships that between 1992 and 2011 had been hit by at least one hurricane.
They found that, although most damage followed storm surges, what people remembered most as evidence that storms were getting worse was wind speed. But the other factor was whether citizens accepted the idea of climate change at all.
“The increasing power of Atlantic hurricanes is often connected to climate change, but studies have shown that Republicans and males tend to be more sceptical of climate change,” says Ning Lin, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton.
“We found a strong link between disbelief in climate change and disbelief that storms are getting worse – they tend to come as a package.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.