Adversarial interactions between physical and social scientists are sometimes seen around this blog, so I’m happy to report on something different. The occasion is a new paper in the 50th anniversary issue of Sociology, flagship journal of the British Sociological Association. The first author is a sociologist, the second a climatologist, the third a geographer, then two more sociologists.
“Flood realities, perceptions and the depth of divisions on climate” employs both physical and social data, as its title suggests. It focuses on the northeastern US state of New Hampshire, where destructive flooding increased in the past decade, for reasons partly related to climate. Figure 1 depicts this increase in terms of disaster expenditures and newspaper reports, but our paper also presents river flow and precipitation data that tell the same story.
Might this increase have been noticed by the public, especially in the most affected areas, overshadowing people’s ideological beliefs about climate change? That hopeful hypothesis, posed by climatologist Cameron Wake, is what launched our study. But statewide surveys in summer and fall 2015, involving more than 2,000 telephone interviews, found surprisingly low public awareness. We asked,
Comparing the past 10 years with 20 or 30 years ago, do you think that number and size of destructive floods in New Hampshire have increased, decreased or stayed about the same?
Over the next few decades, do you think that number and size of destructive floods in New Hampshire are likely to increase, decrease or stay about the same?
Figure 2 graphs responses, along with the observed frequency of extreme precipitation events for the decades in question. Only 35 percent of our respondents thought (correctly) that floods in the past decade had increased.
Moreover, careful analysis found no indication that either past or future flood responses are systematically higher in counties that have been most affected, or are most vulnerable. Disappointingly, responses to the flood questions instead exhibit strong ideological gradients, all too familiar for just about anything related to climate. Figure 3 depicts these gradients for our two flood questions and also a standard question about climate change, which correlates so closely with ideology that it could provide an alternative measure.
These results on New Hampshire flooding are, unfortunately, not a fluke. Another recent study, also with an interdisciplinary team, focused on northeast Oregon (“Wildfire, climate, and perceptions in northeast Oregon”). In that rural region, summer warming has been accompanied by a dangerous rise in wildfires. We found a similar pattern: public awareness of the warming trend follows a party-line gradient, and is mostly unrelated to experiential factors such as long-term residence or ownership of forest land.
Both of these studies involve decadal trends, however. To learn whether similar patterns affect recollections of recent weather, without mentioning trends, New Hampshire State Climatologist Mary Stampone and I carried out an experiment described in “Was December warm?” December of 2015 had been the state’s warmest by far, for that month or any other (in anomaly terms) looking back more than a century. The whole winter of 2015–16 set historical records as well. Asked about December on a statewide survey in February, or about the winter on a second survey in April, most people correctly said temperatures had been above average. But this accuracy was significantly higher among Democrats, and those who think humans are changing the climate.
We repeated our question a third time on a survey in July. The election campaign was by then in full swing, so we can make a more topical comparison. Trump and Clinton supporters stand 21 points apart in their recollections about the record-setting winter (Figure 4). Political divisions seen earlier had apparently widened as winter became a few months more distant.
While political resistance to climate science in the US appears intractable at times, some observers hope that nature will intervene more persuasively, giving inescapable signs of a problem. For scientists, it has done so already, but many people do not take their word for it, or yet see the problems themselves. That ideology or partisan social identity filters public perceptions about disasters and even mundane weather so powerfully suggests that this process, if it happens, won’t be quick.