Weather is not as objective an occurrence as it might seem. People’s perceptions of what makes weather extreme are influenced by where they live, their income, as well as their political views, a new study finds.
There is a difference in both seeing and believing in extreme weather events, according to the study in the journal Environmental Sociology.
“Odds were higher among younger, female, more educated, and Democratic respondents to perceive effects from extreme weather than older, male, less educated, and Republican respondents,” said the study’s author, Matthew Cutler of the University of New Hampshire.
There were other correlations, too. For example, people with lower incomes had higher perceptions of extreme weather than people who earned more. Those who live in more vulnerable areas, as might be expected, interpret the effects of weather differently when the costs to their homes and communities are highest.
Causes of extreme weather and the frequency of extreme weather events is an under-explored area from a sociological perspective. Better understanding is important to building more resilient and adaptive communities. After all, why prepare or take safety precautions if you believe the weather isn’t going to be all that bad or occur all that often?
The U.S. Climate Extremes Index, compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows a significant rise in extreme weather events since the 1970s, the most back-to-back years of extremes over the past decade since 1910, and all-time record-high levels clocked in 1998 and 2012.
“Some recent research has demonstrated linkages between objectively measured weather, or climate anomalies, and public concern or beliefs about climate change,” Cutler notes. “But the factors influencing perceptions of extreme or unusual weather events have received less attention.”
Indeed, there is a faction of the public that debates how much the climate is changing and which factors are responsible for such consequences as global warming.
Weather, on the other hand, is a different order of things: it is typically defined in the here and now or in the immediate future. It also is largely confined, because of its variability, to local or regional areas. Moreover, weather is something we usually experience directly.
Climate is a more abstract concept, typically defined as atmospheric conditions over a 30-year period.
When weather isn’t experiential, reports are relied upon to gauge extremes. This is when beliefs become more muddied.
“The patterns found in this research provide evidence that individuals experience extreme weather in the context of their social circumstances and thus perceive the impacts of extreme weather through the lens of cultural and social influences. In other words, it is not simply a matter of seeing to believe, but rather an emergent process of both seeing and believing — individuals experiencing extreme weather and interpreting the impacts against the backdrop of social and economic circumstances central to and surrounding their lives,” Cutler concludes.
Sophocles said, “what people believe prevails over the truth.” The consequences of disbelief come at a price in the context of extreme weather, however, as damage, injury, and death are often results.
Too many times do we hear about people being unprepared for storms, ignoring officials’ warnings, failing to evacuate, or engaging in reckless behavior during weather extremes.
There is a need to draw a more complete picture of “weather prejudice,” as I’ll call it, in order to render more practical advice about preparing, surviving, and recovering from what is indisputable: extreme weather disasters to come.
Thomas M. Kostigen is the founder of TheClimateSurvivalist.com and a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. He is the National Geographic author of “The Extreme Weather Survival Guide: Understand, Prepare, Survive, Recover” and the NG Kids book, “Extreme Weather: Surviving Tornadoes, Tsunamis, Hailstorms, Thundersnow, Hurricanes and More!” Follow him @weathersurvival, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.