How politics mediates people’s understanding of extreme weather

Hurricane Ian forcefully struck Florida this week, making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. We are spending some time this week unpacking some of the trends around hurricanes and the public’s perception of extreme weather.

The author(s)

  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs
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Hurricane Ian forcefully struck Florida this week, making landfall as a Category 4 hurricane. After leveling communities in Cuba, the storm hit Florida, doing much of the same. Now, it is driving into the southeastern coast.

Warm waters around Florida allowed the storm to pick up energy and speed before hitting the state. Some scientists believe that some of the conditions that set the stage for Ian’s destruction were laid by the effects of climate change. In our partisan, political world, this is hotly contested.

In light of this devastation, we are spending some time this week unpacking some of the trends around hurricanes and the public’s perception of extreme weather.

  1. Storms more frequent. During the first part of the 21st century, the average number of named storms—those that become tropical storms or hurricanes—grew in frequency compared to other decades in the 20th and late 19th centuries. Beyond the frequency of storms, hurricanes have become more intense. Scientists cannot say whether the frequency of storms is related to climate change, but evidence suggests that the intensity of storms is influenced by the warming world. The past twenty years brought nine of the ten costliest hurricane seasons the U.S. ever. Causation or correlation?storms over time
  2. More storms, more storm days. Relatedly, more storms mean more days with thrashing winds and pounding rain. Storms have also been moving slower across the land, fueled by warming water and a slow-moving jet stream. As the Earth and ocean get warmer, more storms have been gaining intensity right before hitting shore too, powered by the warmer water. This is something that catapulted Hurricane Ian into a Category 4 storm in a day. Climate scientists attribute some of these effects to climate change.More storms
  3. Below the radar. Over the past decade, there have been, on average, more hurricanes than the last. Yet, few Americans feel these hurricanes or tropical storms have been happening more frequently or intensely where they live. Some of these views are framed by partisanship, with Democrats more likely to feel that, where they live, hurricanes or tropical storms have been more frequent and intense. Does perception trump reality? Looks like it.Below the radar
  4. Storm colored lens. Partisanship shapes whether people feel they have experienced more extreme weather. Americans live in different realities based on the political team they support—the red or blue one. The physical realities matter less than the partisan spin on it. Climate and weather are no exception here.Storm colored lens
  5. Ignorance is bliss. The way people understand the present shapes how people anticipate the future. A minority of Republicans correctly identify that hurricanes will become stronger because of climate change, a reality that many believe is already here to some extent. If you don’t believe, you don’t worry.Ignorance is bliss

Even as the physical world changes, many are seeing these changes through their partisan filters. Americans can’t agree on whether extreme weather events are becoming more common, let alone any explanations for why they may be happening.

This is the political reality we live in as we try and build back from the destruction of Hurricane Ian and other disasters like this in the future.

The author(s)

  • Clifford Young President, US, Public Affairs
  • Sarah Feldman Senior Data Journalist, US, Public Affairs

Society