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Nature vs. Politics

Published Tuesday Nov 8, 2016

If you are a liberal, you think flooding like this is more frequent. If you are conservative in the same neighborhood, you find flooding less frequent, according to research from the University of NH.


Mention climate change and you will likely get two reactions: liberals who say it is a huge problem or conservatives who pooh pooh it and say it is inflated. But what about if you take out the far away melting ice sheets and ask about the mother nature most people actually experience: No change in attitudes.

New research from the University of NH in Durham finds that people’s political ideology is the strongest predictor of whether they believe flooding has become more frequent. Although data shows that NH has experienced an increase in the frequency and severity of flooding, and that news coverage and disaster expenditures are setting new records, most people are not aware that flooding has increased.

The study, which was recently published in the journal Sociology, shows that among survey respondents overall, only 35 percent think that flooding has increased in the past 10 years. Among those who describe themselves as liberal, however, 48 percent said flooding had increased. Only 22 percent of conservatives agreed.

“Our research hypothesis was that the physical realities of flooding would be breaking through the political polarization we observe on anything related to climate change, but we found instead that people’s politics break through that physical reality,” says Larry Hamilton, a professor of sociology and lead author of the study. “Such ideological responses are another sign of the depth of divisions on climate change.”

Surveying more than 2,000 NH residents in 2015, the researchers asked respondents three key questions: 
Do they think that flooding in the past decade has increased compared to 20 or 30 years ago? 
Do they think flooding is likely to increase in the future?
And, whether they believe climate change is happening now and is caused mainly by human activities.

The gap between liberals and conservatives was 26 points on the past-flooding question and increases to 43 points on the future-flood question. The gap widens to 63 points on the most direct question about human-caused climate change. “Even when people are in a place that experiences a specific weather event that can be linked to a changing climate, ideology is still the main predictor of what their response is going to be,” adds Cameron Wake, research professor of glaciology and climatology and study coauthor.

The researchers were surprised by these results. “We thought perhaps that if science won’t convince people, nature will,” Hamilton says. Even in the southern NH counties that have been hard-hit by flooding in October 2005, May 2006 (Mother’s Day) and April 2007 (Patriot’s Day), responses fell along ideological, not geographic, lines. 

While the study was done in NH, the researchers feel this phenomenon transcends state borders. They say the research results align with other findings from similar studies, citing a study done in eastern Oregon, where warming summers have raised wildfire risks. “The political pattern is very similar,” says Hamilton. “I think it’s a widespread phenomenon.”

The findings, especially those on beliefs about future increases in flooding, concern the researchers, who fear that politicized beliefs will impede communities’ ability to adapt and prepare for a climate future that, scientists predict, will likely include more flooding.

“It is critical for those communities that are more at risk from flooding to start planning to become more resilient,” says Wake, who works with NH communities adapting to climate change as a member of the NH Coastal Adaptation Workgroup. “Clearly we have some work to do to bring the public along in that discussion.”

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