Stephan Lewandowsky: Sandy sways opinion on climate change

Vehicles are submerged during Superstorm Sandy in New York. Photo / AP
Vehicles are submerged during Superstorm Sandy in New York. Photo / AP

"It's global warming, stupid" - Bloomberg's Businessweek cover last week left little doubt about its opinion concerning "Frankenstorm" Sandy.

The accompanying tweet anticipated that the cover might "generate controversy, but only among the stupid". These frank words about the Frankenstorm are long overdue in light of the failure of American politicians to show leadership on this issue.

But is it really a matter of mere "stupidity" to deny the link between climate change and Sandy's fury - a link that has been drawn carefully but quite explicitly by scientists around the world.

No. It takes considerable, if ethically disembodied, intelligence to mislead the public about the link between climate change and Sandy.

It is not a matter of stupidity. It is a matter of ideology.

People who subscribe to a fundamentalist conception of the free market will deny climate change irrespective of the overwhelming strength of the scientific evidence.

They will deny any link between climate change and events such as the unprecedented Frankenstorm Sandy, or the unprecedented Texas drought, or the unprecedented Arctic melt, or the unprecedented retreat of Alpine glaciers, or the unprecedented tripling of extreme weather events during the past 30 years.

There is no longer any reasonable doubt that climate change is happening. There is also no doubt that ideology is the principal driver of climate denial.

So what effect will Sandy have on public opinion?

The deniers will likely double down and their claims will become ever more discordant with the reality on this planet. Their denial will continue even if palm trees grow in Alaska and if storms such as Sandy have become commonplace.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people who are not in the clutches of a self-destructive ideology will likely wake up and smell the science.

Even before Sandy, a recent Pew poll revealed that acceptance of climate change among the American public rebounded by 10 percentage points in the last few years. There is every reason to expect that Sandy will accelerate this trend towards acceptance of the dramatic changes our planet is undergoing.

Much research has shown that people's attitude towards climate change depends on specific events and anecdotal evidence.

For example, a national survey in the UK revealed that people who personally experienced flooding expressed more concern over climate change and, importantly, felt more confident that their actions will have an effect on climate change. Respondents who attributed salient events to climate change were found to be better adapted to climate change, they reported greater self-efficacy, and they were more concerned with climate change.

There is little doubt that Americans, too, will connect the dots between Frankenstorm Sandy and the reality of climate change. They will also likely recognise how drastically wrong the deniers were when they shrugged off sea level rise and how it might contribute to a flooding of New York City.

The moment the public recognises the link between climate change and Sandy, they will clamour for action. Just like New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he endorsed President Obama for re-election because he was more likely to address climate change.

Salient events carry a message. People understand that message.

After all, it's global warming, stupid.

Stephan Lewandowsky is Australian Professorial Fellow, Cognitive Science Laboratories at the University of Western Australia.

- NZ Herald

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