After overflowing rivers swept away homes, tossed cars downstream and left entire neighborhoods swamped with mud, researchers had a question for the survivors of the epic Colorado floods of 2013.
Do you believe in climate change now?
Those researchers — from the University of Colorado Denver and Duke University — expected to find that the severity of flood damage to a person’s home would correlate with their beliefs about climate change. In other words, the more personal property damage, the greater likelihood someone would say that humans are causing the planet to get warmer.
Instead, they found that, yes, people were more likely to believe in global warming if they lived through the flood — but the level of personal damage had no statistically significant impact.
What mattered most was the shared experience of the community, researchers found after surveying about 900 residents of Boulder, Longmont, Lyons, Estes Park, Loveland and Evans. Those whose homes did not flood grew just as concerned about climate change and natural disasters because of what happened to their neighbors and friends.
“These findings may speak to the power of collective experiences, rather than experiences felt independently,” the researchers wrote in a paper published in May in the academic journal, Climatic Change.
Previous studies after hurricanes, droughts and forest fires already had established that survivors of those natural disasters are more likely to believe in climate change. What made this research interesting was that professors Deserai Crow of CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs and Elizabeth Albright of Duke sought to learn whether those who weren’t direct victims of the disaster would change their beliefs.
“We so often assume that individuals are motivated entirely by self interest,” Crow said. “This flips that on its head a little bit. That’s a pretty powerful thing when someone shifts their belief structure.”
While it’s true that Coloradans generally hold more “pro-environmental values” than residents of many other states, politics is polarized here like the rest of the country. And climate change is an issue that often divides people along party lines. So it was fascinating to discover, Crow said, that people’s views on something as contentious as global warming were affected by watching what their neighbors went through when the rain poured for days in September 2013.
“That indicates those social processes are very powerful,” she said. “My working hypothesis is that human beings are social creatures and we experience a lot of the world through proxy, through what our neighbors, our family, our friends, the media tell is going on.”
The survey in 2016 and 2017 asked residents in the northern Front Range towns to assign value, from one to five points, to indicate whether they agreed with statements including:
- Global climate change will harm me personally at some point in my lifetime.
- Global climate change contributed to the 2013 flood in my community.
- Humans have the right to modify the natural environment to suit their needs.
- When humans interfere with nature, it often produces disastrous consequences.
Those who experienced the floods or saw their neighbors suffer damage were more likely to believe in climate change than those who lived outside the flood zone. The research also collected residents’ political affiliation, gender and, for those who experienced personal property damage, a rating based on points to gauge the scale of the damage.
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In the survey, men and Republicans were less likely than women and Democrats to report stronger beliefs in global warming after the flood, which is what researchers had anticipated in part based on Yale University’s “Global Warming’s Six Americas.” People with bachelor’s degrees and higher were more likely to believe strongly in climate change after the flood.
The study also found that those who identified as Republican generally reported less severe flood damage than non-Republicans, even though researchers found they were no less likely to live in the flood zone.
“This suggests that the Republicans may experience, perceive, and/or report systematically less damage than non-Republicans, even if they were at the same risk of flooding based on their location,” the paper said.
Half of the respondents were men, 18 percent were Republican and 24 percent had at least four years of college.
The results could become part of the framework for predicting which people are more likely to believe in global warming. Just as political party affiliation is a predictor, so is whether a person lives in a community that has experienced a natural disaster, the authors said.
The same researcher at CU Denver, along with a team of graduate students, is helping the state with separate research on community resiliency following disasters.
The Colorado Resiliency Office, which was created seven years ago following the floods, is writing a “resiliency playbook” for communities that have suffered natural disasters such as floods and fires, as well as human-caused disasters such as the closure of a town’s largest employer.
The goal is to create the most comprehensive set of advice on how to prepare for disasters and how to recover, “so they can withstand and bounce back from any shock,” said Chantal Unfug, director of the local government division at the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which includes the resiliency office.
Though the office tries to mitigate all kinds of disasters, weather events, wildfires and drought have pushed part of their focus toward climate change. Of the 20 worst fires in state history, five occurred in 2018.
“We continually have this push and this shift of what our climate looks like,” said Natriece Bryant, deputy executive director of the Department of Local Affairs. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when.”