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Up and Down with Climate: Extreme Weather Events and the Issue-Attention Cycle

Sat, November 9, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel, Floor: Lobby Level, Sherman


Despite an accumulation of scientific evidence on both the causes and consequences of climate change, public opinion has shifted little over time. A majority of Americans believe that the problem is real, that its effects will happen within their lifetime, and that human activity is the dominant cause, but those attitudes are neither strong nor salient—likened by some to water sloshing in a shallow pan. As David Leonhardt wrote recently in The New York Times: “If vast amounts of scientific evidence—and a consensus in nearly every other country—have not persuaded Americans to take on climate change, maybe the grim march of extreme weather finally will.”

In this paper, we use organic data drawn from Google Trends as an alternative to conventional measures of issue salience in polls to see whether or not internet search queries related to climate change increase in volume during (and after) extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, heat waves, and droughts, and use those results to explore implications for climate policy and communication. Despite a surge in media attention in recent years attributing the frequency and intensity of storms to broader changes in climate, we find little evidence that average citizens connect the two. Instead, the issue-attention cycle on climate continues to be dictated largely by political events—from Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” to the infamous “climategate” memos and President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement—in short, events that do little to bridge, and often deepen, the partisan divide.