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  • Climate insights 2020: natural disasters
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Climate insights 2020: natural disasters

Source(s):  Resources for the Future (RFF)

The survey experiment described here explored whether framing government policies regarding wildfires and floods in terms of climate change alters public support for those policies. Respondents were randomly assigned either to evaluate policies with no mention of climate change, or they were first told that natural scientists believe that climate change will make the damage from wildfires and floods more frequent and more profound. In reviewing these responses, the authors examined whether this emphasis framing increased the public’s preferences for government policies to adapt to and mitigate the effects of these events on people and property.

In the context of this survey, the authors also sought to identify groups of people who may be more or less favorable toward such government policies. In addition to traditional demographic predictors of policy support and the role of respondents’ belief about the existence of climate change, we looked closely at how respondents’ support for the policy was affected by their material self-interest. A great deal of theory, especially in economics, has portrayed people as rational actors pursuing their material self-interests (Kiewiet 1983; Kinder and Kiewiet 1981; Lewis-Beck and Paldam 2000). Rational choice theory suggests that people will support a public policy if they perceive that it will yield more economic benefits than costs to themselves (Downs 1957). However, research has shown that a person’s material self-interests have little impact when forming opinions about government policies. Instead, people focus on what they think is best for the most people affected by the policy—a style of reasoning called “sociotropic” (Lau and Heldman 2009; Sears and Funk 1990; Sears et al. 1980). We explored this notion by examining whether Americans’ support for policies to reduce wildfire and flood damage is affected by their perceptions of the effects they think climate change will have on them personally and on future generations.

The authors also explored another hypothesis previously discussed in this report series—that concern about the environment is a “luxury good” that people can only afford if they have taken care of their basic life needs (Maslow 1970). Princeton University psychology professor Elke Weber’s theory of a “finite pool of worry” (2015)—which posits that if people are fully consumed by worry about other issues, they will have little or no capacity to worry about climate change—is also particularly relevant to this discussion, particularly as worries about COVID-19, racial inequity, and countless other issues have surged in 2020.

The authors explored this issue by examining whether support for government policies to adapt to wildfires and floods might be diminished in social groups that are forced to focus on satisfying basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, such as lower-income individuals. Likewise, long-term political suppression and economic deprivation resulting from the social stratification are thought to have subjected people of color to substantial challenges in day-to-day living. These marginalized communities often face many different immediate worries, and if climate change is a far-off concern of less immediate relevance, Weber’s theory suggests that people will see less support in these groups for government focus on preventing effects of what might be perceived as relatively rare events. Instead, these groups might be more supportive of government efforts to assist them in the course of ordinary daily life on other, more immediate threats.



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  • Climate insights 2020: natural disasters
  • Publication date 2020
  • Author(s) MacInnis, Bo; Krosnick, Jon
  • Number of pages 24 p.

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