Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind… and leadership.

Today the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released their latest survey findings, in a report entitled Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind… April 2013.[1]

How might leaders make best use of this survey? To address this question, perhaps we could start with the (succinct) executive summary, reproduced here in its entirety:

• About six in ten Americans (58%) say “global warming is affecting weather in the United States.”

• Many Americans believe global warming made recent extreme weather and climatic events “more severe,” specifically: 2012 as the warmest year on record in the United States (50%); the ongoing drought in the Midwest and the Great Plains (49%); Superstorm Sandy (46%); and Superstorm Nemo (42%).

• About two out of three Americans say weather in the U.S. has been worse over the past several years, up 12 percentage points since Spring 2012. By contrast, fewer Americans say weather has been getting better over the past several years – only one in ten (11%), down 16 points compared to a year ago.

• Many Americans (51%) also say weather in their local area has been worse over the past several years.

• Overall, 85 percent of Americans report that they experienced one or more types of extreme weather in the past year, most often citing extreme high winds (60%) and extreme heat (51%).

• Of those Americans who experienced extreme weather events in the past year, many (37%) say they were significantly harmed. Moreover, the number who have been harmed appears to be growing (up 5 percentage points since Fall 2012 and 4 points since Spring 2012). For example, about one in five Americans today say they suffered a moderate or great deal of harm from extreme high winds (18%, up 9 points since Fall 2012) or an extreme snowstorm (18%, up 3 points). More also say they were harmed by drought (15%, up 6 points) or a hurricane (6%, up 4 points).

• Most Americans (80%) have close friends or family members (not livingwith them) who experienced extreme weather events in the past year, including extreme high winds (47%), an extreme heat wave (46%), an extreme snowstorm (39%), extreme cold temperatures (39%), an extreme rainstorm (37%), or a drought (35%).

• Over half of Americans (54%) believe it is “very” or “somewhat likely” that extreme weather will cause a natural disaster in their community in the coming year.

• Americans who experienced an extreme weather event are most likely to have communicated about it person-to-person – either in person (89%) or on the phone (84%) – although some used social media, such as writing about the experience on Facebook (23%) or sharing a photo of the event or its aftermath using Facebook, Tumblr, or Instagram (19%).

Once again, Mr. Leiserowitz, Mr. Maibach and their coauthors have done a stellar job of framing a structured array of incisive questions and letting statistics of the responses speak for themselves (a signature trait of their work). Such an approach is useful to all parties… the concerned general public, scientists, and political leaders.

But, back to the question, how might the latter group…  leaders… make fullest use of such survey results?

Leaders have found the greatest success not when they’ve tried to make their public do a 1800 turn but rather when they’ve taken a pre-existing, deep but vague public concern and given it focus. Leaders are at their best when they make knowledge work effective, and when they focus everyone’s energies more on doing the right things than on merely doing things right.

Leaders could therefore come at this two-edged challenge/opportunity in any of several ways. For example, they could take climate-change concerns as the starting point and encourage the public to seek ways and means to reduce national and global carbon emissions. Alternatively, they could take weather extremes as the starting point and encourage the public to build national resilience to weather extremes at the community and household level.

Leaders have real-world experience on these approaches as well. They know that in the past climate-change has sometimes tended to polarize discussion and that uncertainties have paralyzed action. Moreover, they know that to focus on emissions reductions leaves most members of the public uninvolved… at a personal level able to do little more than weigh in on specific policy proposals. By contrast they know from Project Impact (now labeled more generically as FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program)and other initiatives that efforts to build community resilience at the local level tend to get everyone energized and engaged…from K-12 school children, to small business owners and other local business leaders, to hospital administrators to insurers, and emergency responders of every stripe. Virtually no household is left untouched or uninvolved. For that reason, FEMA programs and place-based initiatives such as the National Weather Service’s Weather-Ready Nation should merit special interest from those who would lead.

Of course, as the survey itself suggests, the most favorable path is likely not either/or, but both/and… a balanced approach to the various dimensions of the challenge we face… living (successfully) on the real world.


[1] : Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G., & Howe, P. (2013) Extreme

Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind: April 2013. Yale University and George Mason

University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

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3 Responses to Extreme Weather and Climate Change in the American Mind… and leadership.

  1. Or – our leaders might be appalled at the ignorance of the public. “Superstorm” Sandy – c’mon! A Cat 1, that severely damaged 10K homes in NY State, vs the several hundred thousand severely damaged by Katrina in Louisiana.

    Global warming affecting severity (or number) of storms – c’mon. No basis.

    Not recognizing that our rising costs of coastal disasters are due to our migration to the coasts.

    The unscrupulous would have a hey-day (or pay day) with this – oh, wait – Al Gore already did. Never mind…

    • Thanks, John… not disagreeing with your points, but a quick question…is a leader’s job that of cleaning up real or perceived knowledge deficits…or are the leader’s time and energies better spent harnessing the public’s passions, whatever they may be within broad bounds, to work that will move cities and towns toward broadly beneficial goals…such as community-level resilience to extremes?

      • Oh, drat! Hoist on my own petard – kind of. Certainly the latter is of primary importance. However, my experience indicates that achieving beneficial goals (esp. at the community level) all too often means that the leader has to clear the rocks of ignorance off the playing field before the real game can begin.

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