Support for green policies rises after Hurricane Sandy

What would it take to change people’s views on global warming? According to a new study, being personally affected by a storm might be enough to sway opinions. Researchers found that after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, New Jersey residents were better-disposed toward an environmentally-friendly politician.

Hurricane Sandy hit southern New Jersey on October 29, 2012 and lashed the coast from Maine to Florida. The storm killed more than 160 people, flooded hundreds of thousands of homes, and destroyed piers. About 8.5 million residents lost power, and gas line ruptures sparked fires. Some reports estimate the total property damage at close to $50 billion.

Politicians and the media took notice. After the storm, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote that “Our climate is changing” and that the risk of more extreme weather “should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story with the blaring headline “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

But how did ordinary citizens react? To find out, researchers surveyed 318 Rutgers University students soon after Hurricane Sandy and compared their responses to those of 269 students surveyed in 2010. Many of the students in the post-Sandy group had been somehow affected by the storm: The university cancelled classes, some students had lost power or had their homes destroyed, and others were left stranded by fuel shortages.

The team presented the students with two hypothetical political candidates, who had similar ages and backgrounds but differed in their approaches to the environment. One candidate supported green policies such as promoting solar energy and public transportation, making houses more energy-efficient, and building offshore windmills, “even though it may increase energy costs for consumers or reduce individual freedom.”

The researchers then measured the students’ explicit and implicit responses to the candidates. The explicit test asked who they would vote for, and the implicit test gauged their gut reactions by asking the students to associate the candidates’ names with positive or negative words.

In both groups, about two-thirds of the students voted for the green candidate. But their implicit reactions told a different story. In the pre-Sandy group, the students’ gut reactions suggested that they viewed the traditional candidate more positively; after Sandy, they gravitated toward the green candidate. And the students’ implicit and explicit reactions were more likely to agree after the storm, the researchers report in Psychological Science.

“Not only was extreme weather persuasive at the automatic level, people were more likely to base their decisions on their gut-feelings in the aftermath of Sandy, compared to before the storm,” said study co-author Laurie Rudman of Rutgers University in a press release. But she hopes that it won’t take a tragedy to convince people to support environmental policies: “Our hope is that researchers will design persuasion strategies that effectively change people’s implicit attitudes without them having to suffer through a disaster.” Roberta Kwok | 24 September 2013

Source: Rudman, L.A. et al. 2013. When truth is personally inconvenient, attitudes change: The impact of extreme weather on implicit support for green politicians and explicit climate-change beliefs. Psychological Science doi: 10.1177/0956797613492775.

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