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Place, proximity, and perceived harm: extreme weather events and views about climate change

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Advances in event attribution have improved scientific confidence in linking climate change to extreme weather severity and frequency, but this confidence varies by event type. Yet, scholars and activists argue that extreme weather events may provide the best opportunity to raise awareness and prompt action on climate change. We focus on four cases of extreme weather with low attribution (tornado outbreaks in Laurel County, Kentucky, and Winston County, Mississippi; wildfires in Yavapai County, Arizona, and Lake County, California). We survey county residents to examine the role of event proximity, community- and event-specific characteristics, and reported harm in shaping climate change views post-event. Using multilevel regression analysis, we find that reported personal and community harm aligns with event proximity and larger community damages. For our respondents’ climate change views, however, political ideology dominates, suggesting the importance of motivated reasoning in individual interpretations of extreme weather events. At the same time, while event proximity is irrelevant, we find reported harm to be related to climate change views. Thus, while respondents appear to be making connections between extreme weather events and climate change among our four cases, these connections seem to be most likely to occur in communities where belief in climate change is already high, the event caused significant impacts and is more attributable to climate change, and elites frame the event in these terms—as in Lake County. Our findings are particularly relevant for policymakers and activists looking to such events as catalysts for climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

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  1. We use the term global warming, rather than climate change, for comparability to downscaled national surveys (Howe et al. 2015).

  2. As highlighted in Corner et al. (2012), actual attitude change would have required a “before-and-after” method, where respondents would have been asked to state their current views about climate change both before and after the extreme weather event. Reported attitude change is measured only once, after the event, and asks respondents to assess whether their attitudes have changed since before the event. Psychological research comparing actual to reported attitude changes in experimental settings indicates that reported attitudinal changes might show more evidence of attitude polarization (e.g., between non-skeptics and skeptics of climate change) than actual measures (Corner et al. 2012). For our purposes, reported attitude change was our only option given that we only conducted post-event surveys.

  3. Alternatively, we modeled five-point scale versions of the climate change view measures using ordinal logistic multilevel regression and found that the proportional odds ratio assumption was violated.

  4. The R package lavaan does not accommodate multilevel modeling at the time of conducting this research, so the results of this analysis are not directly comparable to the models we present throughout this article. We will provide them upon reader request.


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We would like to acknowledge the many individuals from Laurel, Winston, Yavapai, and Lake Counties who graciously offered their time and perspectives for interviews and surveys. We would also like to thank our project collaborators for their invaluable assistance, including Doug McAdam, Jenna Knobloch, Ika Widiyasari, Noel Downing, Courtney Flathers, and Stephanie Shepard.


This research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation Sociology Program grant no. 1357055, Community Reactions to Extreme Weather Events.

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Correspondence to Chad Zanocco.

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Zanocco, C., Boudet, H., Nilson, R. et al. Place, proximity, and perceived harm: extreme weather events and views about climate change. Climatic Change 149, 349–365 (2018).

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