This has been an extraordinary year for Earth’s weather, for all the wrong reasons: Hurricane Ian devastated Southwest Florida, Hurricane Fiona hit Nova Scotia, a third of Pakistan was affected. by massive flooding, record-breaking heat has ignited the west coast of North America from British Columbia to California. The heat wave in Europe shattered all existing records. The list of disastrous extreme weather events – almost certainly the result of anthropogenic climate change – grows longer every year. And that will be on the minds of leaders, ministers, activists and bureaucrats as they gather next week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27).
But like a new paper by Assistant Professor of Political Science Sam Rowan notes, these types of shocks have not yet led to political action on climate change. Published in the journal Environmental policythe paper notes that extreme weather events and natural disasters, which result in hundreds of billions of dollars in damage and thousands of lives lost, are not associated with climate policy reforms.
Shocks are not enough
Rowan began his research after noting the deluge of increasingly fierce arguments and opinion pieces he saw in the media urging governments to act on global warming in the wake of extreme weather. They regularly appeared in the wake of a severe flood, wildfire or heat wave, and the authors were confident that the event would prompt real government climate action.
“There were good reasons to think that heat waves or wildfires could trigger political reforms,” he explains. “First, they make the abstract issue of climate change much more salient in people’s lived experience. Second, research shows that local extreme weather events actually change public attitudes towards climate change. And third, they create massive economic damage, so we should expect business owners to lobby their local officials for climate action.
However, governments have been slow, if not inert, to pass laws in response to weather events. Rowan looked at a sample of heat shocks and natural disasters between 1990 and 2018, then tested whether significant national, subnational, or international reforms occurred in the three years after them. Not only did he find no dedicated policy reforms stemming from a certain event – which he acknowledges can take a long time to develop and enact – but he saw no evidence of policies that would be relatively easy to produce, such as the breakdown of climate change. mitigation financing.
Rowan’s research also explained the accumulation of new climate laws and policies that have been enacted by governments over time. This involves looking at long-term actions in many countries to see if there is an increase in the adoption of new policy pathways in response to a climate shock. He found no connection between weather events and political news, and furthermore, political news content was generally unrelated to recent local weather events.
Answers to people, not climate
Rowan points out that his study did not look for evidence of increased civil society mobilization following climate shocks, whether from climate activists or businesses threatened by the effects of climate change.
“It could be a missing piece of the chain,” he says. “You need an intermediate step to start protest movements, industry associations lobbying public officials and other types of contentious politics so that politicians feel compelled to act on this issue.”
Even when public opinion is mobilized, supporters of climate action often face stiff opposition from influential, well-connected and well-funded groups. He takes the fossil fuel industry as an example.
“For a long time this industry was more organized and could speak with one voice,” he says. “One of the hopes or expectations expressed in this article is that these extreme weather events can be a kind of catalyst to help environmental groups organize themselves more, attract new members and build stronger coalitions to make push for climate action.”
– This press release was originally published on the Concordia University website