Monday, November 12, 2012

Do Disasters Increase Climate Change Awareness, Concern, and Engagement?

In a lively exchange on the Garrison listserv, communicators, journalists, developers, activists, and educators from around the country have been debating whether disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina may lead to more belief in and concern about climate change. My Chicago work suggests that this is definitely a possibility:

  • Our research studies in Roseland and Bronzeville suggest correlation between knowledge of and experiences with Hurricane Katrina and concern with climate change, as it will impact African Americans in general and people's communities and lives more specifically. 
  • Similarly, many in the Polish community in Chicago relate to climate change through their own and others' experiences with serious flooding over the past decade in Poland. 
  • And in Pilsen, the Mexican community references experiences from childhood and more recently with drought--and some leaders even see Mexicans displaced from their homelands by drought and other weather disasters as climate refugees.

My colleague George Marshall, an applied sociologist and founder of the UK's Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN), however, is engaged in research that suggests that the link between disaster and increased climate change awareness and concern is not so straightforward. Over the last week, a lively debate unfolded on the list of the Garrison Institute's Climate, Mind and Behavior Initiative. 

George's post was by far the most intriguing, and was subsequently re-posted, as a more polished essay, by New York Times dotearth blogger Andrew Revkin. George relates data from interviews with leaders and residents in Bastrop, Texas about their experiences with the worst fires in Texas history, which destroyed 1,700 homes. He concludes that overall people never became interested in talking about anthropogenic climate change and what they could do about it for the future, even despite the fact that the state climatologist made a causal connection. Read the whole fascinating post: Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement on Climate Change.

If you are intrigued with George, as I am, and want to hear more from him, watch his presentation from the Garrison Institute Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium last year. He used to be a stand up comic--and his presentation will definitely be the most engaging presentation you've ever watched on climate change communication (which may not say much considering that most of you have not likely watched many of these videos, but hey--). 

Check it out--watch it in chunks if you must, but you are guaranteed to enjoy and learn:
Hearth and Hiraeth - Building Values-Based Climate Change Narratives in the Celtic Heartland 

And then share your experiences:
Have you found that disasters related to extreme weather increase conversation, concern, and action related to climate change?
Do you have some specific stories about this that you can share? I want to hear them!



  1. Out in California where there seem to be a lot fewer climate doubters people watch with growing concern the droughts. Here talk is widespread as to everyone's concern that climate change is central to severe weather. As with the past election, sometimes it feels like a bubble out here.

  2. I think you make a good point that people's proclivity to belief or not believe in climate change will influence whether a disaster leads to increased conversation and awareness about climate change.

  3. Being born and raised in New York, I have had talks with friends and relatives back home who have definitely begun to talk about climate change as a contributing factor to Hurricane Sandy. I just think it is unfortunate that we have to wait until after disaster has stricken (more than once) for the conversation to be brought to the table at all

  4. Interesting article on Google searches for Hurricane Sandy and climate change, which shows little correlation: