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Hurricane Sandy Hasn’t Shifted Climate Narrative

Click on the search terms to see the corresponding trends analysis.

In the year since Hurricane Sandy struck the Mid-Atlantic, news articles have widely declared that the storm has “changed the public’s view of weather threats” and that “resilience” would be the environmental buzzword of 2013. That sounds all well and good, but are headlines enough to move public opinion and spark new discussions?

Signs seem to point to “no.” Policy has moved forward in a number of the states most affected by Sandy. But the broader U.S. public has shown little interest in carrying that conversation to the national level, and despite proclamations otherwise, the media has been equally disengaged.

“Climate adaptation,” “disaster preparedness,” and “sea level rise” — the most robust tie between Sandy and manmade global warming — are three key terms associated with Sandy.

A weekly breakdown of search data in the U.S. shows that in the run up to and immediate aftermath of Sandy, the public showed a greater interest in those terms. But interest quickly waned, and there’s been no discernible trend in the year since the storm.

Even in New York City, which bore the brunt of Sandy’s impacts and has put forth a $19.5 billion climate resiliency plan, interest has been ephemeral. Looking at city-level searches, the same pattern than happened nationally played out locally.

Equal or even greater spikes in search interest are noticeable around other climate events as well. For example, searches for “climate adaptation” spiked following Hurricane Irene and a Halloween snowstorm in 2011. Searches for "adaptation" following those storms were on par with Sandy, despite smaller economic losses. 

Interest in “adaptation” as well as “sea level rise” also rose in early December 2011 and late November 2012. Those peaks coincided with the annual United Nations climate negotiations. During the 2012 negotiations in Doha, Qatar, a major sea level rise report was released and the amount of searches during that period for that term actually topped searches during Sandy. However, even those big peaks failed to produce longer-lasting trends, as interest dropped back down to a baseline level.

Ironically, though the media declared Sandy a conversation changer, there’s been no major shift in media coverage either. Searching newspapers, magazines, newswires, and other media shows the same post-Sandy peak in coverage mentioning the three terms but no major changes in the long run.

Only “sea level rise” shows an upward trend in coverage since Sandy. There’s been almost no trend in coverage mentioning “disaster preparedness” and even a slight downward trend in coverage mentioning “climate adaptation.”

"I think there’s not a lot of leadership or enterprise in science and enviromental writing as we would hope given cutbacks in the mainstream media," said Cristine Russell, a veteran science writer and senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School. "Reporters on this story, as well as others, tend to be a little reactive rather than proactive."

That means that once it seems like people know the story, reporters stop covering it. "Even extreme weather has run its cycle," she said, noting that 2012 was a year of extremes so the comparative calm in 2013 could have also helped cause the dip.

So why didn’t Sandy, a storm that blacked out parts of the media capital of the country, have staying power?

Damage on Staten Island in the immediate aftermath of Sandy. Despite scenes like this and calls for a new conversation around climate, the storm has had no lasting impact on the national discourse.
Credit: Somayya Ali/NASA GISS

Part of the challenge could be timescales. Following an extreme weather event, there are inevitably questions about the role climate change plays and how society should plan for future extreme events going forward. However, science often lags behind public interest and the understanding of how, if at all, climate change contributes to a specific event can often take months, if not years, for scientists to get a handle on.

In the case of Sandy, an extreme events study released on Sept. 5, 2013, nearly 10 months after the storm, said: “Sandy is probably one of the most difficult extreme events of 2012 to fully explain.”

With public interest faded, restarting the conversation with a phrase like that is like trying to get the wheels turning on a bike with a rusted chain.

Sandy was a large storm, but it also left a large part of the U.S. unscathed. And much of the country will never have to deal with hurricanes, so while Lower Manhattan blacked out might be a powerful image, the hazard isn’t something that’s universally relatable.

There’s also a third, simpler explanation for why Sandy failed to change the conversation: people simply don’t change their minds easily.

“In public opinion, we don’t often see things move dramatically,” said Chris Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “It’s more the norm that people don’t change their views than do change their views, especially when something becomes more entrenched with ideological and political arguments.”

Climate change fits into that category. Polls by Borick and others show not only that opinions about whether it’s happening falling down party lines, but also that there’s little movement from one opinion to the other.

Instead, events like Sandy just shift how people frame their attitudes. Borick found that shortly after Sandy, 42 percent of those that accepted that climate change is occurring cited the strength of hurricanes hitting the U.S. as evidence for their opinion. The month prior to Sandy, that number stood at just 26 percent.

The same phenomenon was also on display for skeptics following the snowy winter of 2010-11. Borick’s polls found a major uptick in the number of skeptics citing snowstorms as the reason for their belief. In both the cases, there was only a slight shift in overall public opinion one way or the other.

“You have these existing beliefs and now you’re connecting the events as a way of confirming those views,” Borick said.

Ezra Markowitz, a postdoctorial researcher at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, echoed Borick’s views. “The relationship between personal experience and engagement goes both ways,” he added. “People's perceived personal experience of climate change-related events increases their certainty about the problem, but also people's preexisting beliefs influence how they experience an event.”

In that light, proclamations that Sandy would change minds or stir national interest appear myopic. Though it has happened, it’s exceedingly rare for single events to cause big shifts.

Borick cited Watergate and the Vietnam War as two events that had profound impacts on the public’s level of trust in the government. The impact of those two events was so profound that in the nearly 40 years since Watergate, Americans’ trust in the government has never fully rebounded.

Other events not previously on the public’s radar can also capture the cultural zeitgeist more easily.

“In the case of Kony 2012, you got a lot of interest really quickly,” Markowitz said, referring to a viral campaign against an African warlord. “You got tens of millions of people to pay attention to an issue they never paid attention to before in a few weeks time.”

Broad public interest has since dissipated, but not before public opinion convinced President Obama to commit special forces to seeking out Kony and led Congress to pass a bill offering a reward for his arrest.

In addition to climate change being a polarizing topic, many of the ways to address it come down to government interventions, a topic that also falls along sharply divided lines. Clearing that hurdle is a tall one.

Russell believes more local coverage of the connection between climate and extreme weather and how they affect communities is one way over it.

"In 2014, there will be more in the IPCC about impacts and adaptation and that may spark more local coverage and concern," she said, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report. The first part released last month focused more on the physical science of climate change.

Markowitz echoed that, saying, “Large-scale events can be focusing events, as a jumping off point, but not as everything.”

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