Lacroix, K., Gifford, R., & Rush, J. (2019). Climate change beliefs shape the interpretation of forest fire events. Climatic Change, 1-18. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-019-02584-6
In a nutshell: Indirect exposure (e.g. media) to forest fires increased risk perception of climate change, which predicted the likelihood of climate change policy support. Overall risk perceptions of climate change increased during the fire season, but weakly among climate skeptics despite indirect and direct exposure to forest fires.
Climate change is increasing the severity of extreme weather. Recent and ongoing catastrophic bushfires across Australia, intensified by climate change, have taken an immense toll on human life and wildlife, likely causing the extinctions of threatened plant and animal species. It seems probable that experiencing these disasters indirectly through social media posts or discussions about the fires, or directly by seeing and breathing in smoke pollution, would convince skeptics that the climate is changing. But recent research by Karine Lacroix and colleagues suggests this may not necessarily be the case.
They investigated if direct and indirect experiences of forest fires and other extreme weather in Canada increased individual perceptions of climate change risk and their support for policies that would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Before, during and after the Canadian forest fire season the authors surveyed the Canadian public with repeated measures of climate change knowledge, risk perceptions, values, socio-cultural influences, plus the respondent’s exposure to forest fires. They found that indirect exposure to forest fires positively influenced perceptions of climate change which increased policy support for climate change. Curiously, direct exposure to fire and other weather events did not. Additionally, while perceptions of climate change risk increased during the season, the largest increases were among those already concerned about climate change. Individuals that did not accept the validity of climate change science, demonstrated only a slight increase in risk perceptions of climate change.
Results indicate that individuals interpret events such as fire disasters through a biased lens of prior beliefs. We should not expect climate skeptics to be influenced by pictures or stories forest fires on social media or even direct exposure, such as loss of property. As the authors point out extreme weather events do provide important moments in which to educate the public about the scientific consensus of climate change and offer tangible actions to increase self-efficacy in reducing GHG emissions. In doing so this may also increase support for climate change policy. Conservation engagement during these times of crisis must be handled sensitively and message testing can inform appropriate communication strategies. A good place to start is by checking out Yale’s Global Warming’s Six Americas.