Wildfire smoke reminded people about climate change. How soon will they forget?


People wear face masks on June 7, 2023, walking down a street in New York City, their surroundings hazed in orange by smoke from Canadian wildfires.
Smoke from Canadian wildfires renewed attention on climate change, but the effect may not last. | Lev Radin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Extreme weather and climate-linked disasters don’t always lead to changes in public opinion.

The smoke cloud over the East Coast from record wildfires in Canada has become an impossible-to-ignore story. Turn on the news or log into any form of social media this week, and you’ll soon hear reports of increasingly toxic air or see otherworldly photos of orange skies over metropolises like New York and Washington, DC.

Or if you’re anywhere along the eastern seaboard, a brief whiff of air outside may be enough to learn what it’s like to breathe some of the worst pollution in the world.

Given that the smoke has shrouded one of the most populated parts of the country (and some of the largest media markets), it makes sense that the dirty air is getting a lot of attention. And many people under the pall are drawing a link to rising average temperatures. President Joe Biden on Thursday called it “another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change.”

But after the fires burn out and the smoke dissipates, will people still care as much about rising temperatures? And will that concern translate into action? To an extent, sure. But public opinion research on this is surprisingly murky.

“Overall, Americans are growing more concerned about climate change,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, in an email. “The increasing frequency of extreme weather events and wildfires is likely playing a role in this growing rate of concern.”

It’s important to note that wildfires are a regular, natural phenomenon in many forests, including those in Canada. But several factors converged to make the recent blazes so stunning. Eastern Canadian forests experienced abnormally high temperatures and low humidity this year. Swirling winds above Nova Scotia then pushed the rising smoke south along the Atlantic coast toward New York City and then Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, places that don’t typically get this kind of smoke.

However, rising average temperatures are increasing the chances of fomenting the conditions for large fires as well. “As the atmosphere warms, the ability to suck moisture out of the fuel [trees and other vegetation] increases almost exponentially,” Mike Flannigan, a wildland fire professor at the University of Alberta, told Vox’s Benji Jones. Which is to say, climate change didn’t “cause” these fires, but it’s a factor that’s driving up the overall risk of major infernos. Growing populations in vulnerable areas also mean that more people and property are afflicted when fires do ignite.

Recent polls have shown that Americans are connecting these dots. The Pew Research Center reported last year that among people who experienced events like heat waves, drought, and wildfires, more than 80 percent said climate change played a role. However, there was a big gap between Republicans and Democrats, with Democrats more likely to report a larger role for climate change.

Chart showing how people perceive the role of climate change in various extreme weather events. Pew Research Center
There’s a partisan divide in how Americans see the role of climate change in extreme weather.

Another 2022 poll, from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that among adults who experienced extreme weather over the past five years, 37 percent said climate change was a crisis and 40 percent said it was a major problem. Compare that to adults who didn’t experience severe weather: Just 16 percent described climate change as a crisis and 30 percent as a major problem.

Graph comparing how people who experienced extreme weather think about climate change compared to those that didn’t. NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
People who experience extreme weather say that climate change is a more urgent problem than those that don’t.

But other researchers have found mixed results on the question of how much disasters and extreme events alter how people think about global warming. A 2019 review paper in Environmental Research Letters looking at 73 studies of climate change and public opinion found that there were often too many confounding variables, concluding “the relationship between weather and climate opinions still remains unclear.”

Major events similar to the ongoing fires in Canada did raise short-term concerns about climate change, mainly among people who were already worried about rising global average temperatures, explained the paper’s co-author Peter Howe, who studies perceptions of climate change at Utah State University, in an email. “However, it’s not clear how durable or long-lasting the impacts are,” he said.

It’s also uncertain how much floods, fires, heat waves, and drought influence people who weren’t already thinking about the environment. “We don’t have strong evidence yet that extreme weather events are a major cause of people who were previously dismissive about climate change changing their minds,” Howe said.

In fact, some opinion polls show that the partisan divide on climate change as a priority has grown even though disasters exacerbated by climate change afflict red and blue regions alike.

Chart comparing Republican and Democratic opinions about climate change. Pew Research Center
Far more Democrats say that climate change is a major threat than Republicans.

On the other hand, many of the tactics to limit climate change remain broadly popular. According to Pew, 69 percent of Americans support the US becoming carbon neutral by 2050 and a majority favor more government support for renewable energy.

Climate change isn’t the only issue on the table, of course. Worries about the economy can push concerns about warming to the backburner for some people, and for others, it can alter the kinds of solutions they support. “In the current period of high inflation, the public largely favors policies seen as having less of a direct impact on their own financial situation,” according to the 2022 NPR poll. For example, Americans were more inclined to support measures to protect against future disasters (57 percent) and less likely to favor a carbon tax that would raise their energy prices (39 percent).

So, on their own, the recent Canadian fires and their smoky shadow over a huge swath of the continent might not lead to large, lasting changes in public opinion. But with average global temperatures rising, the chances of fires, floods, and heat waves recurring more often or with more severity is growing. The smoke will blow away, but more days with dangerous air quality lie ahead, and it will grow even harder to avoid.

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