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Will Extreme Weather in the US Stoke Concerns Over Climate Change?

“What’s a hurricane?”  That was the question posed to me by my two (going on three) year old son after surveying the aftermath of Super-storm Sandy in our neighborhood.  The “Frankenstorm,” which slammed into the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern portion of the United States left millions without power and devastated beachfront communities.  Hardest hit were New York and my home state of New Jersey.

Until recently, folks in this portion of the US didn’t experience extreme weather patterns on a regular basis.  Thus being naïve about a hurricane is not only appropriate for a New Jersey toddler, but his New Jersey father as well.    Yet after multiple October snowstorms, scorching drought, and unprecedented floods many of my neighbors, colleagues, and friends are increasingly talking about “the weird weather we are having.”  According to the 2012 GfK Green Gauge US survey, 69% agreed that weather in their local area has become stranger and less predictable – this jumps to 81% for Americans who live in the Mid-Atlantic and New England States.  Many commentators have attributed recent weather events in the Northeast to climate change.   In response to Sandy, Business Week’s front page article was entitled “It’s Global Warming Stupid.”

Now, my job isn’t to assess the causes of climate change or if recent weather events can be attributed to climate change.  My job as a consumer trends researcher is to assess if events like Super-storm Sandy will have an impact on public opinion.  Specifically, after years of waning concern, and in some cases, hostility towards the notion of human-caused climate change will extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy re-ignite interest?  Will the public demand more of brands, companies and government when it comes to climate change?

We know from GfK’s Green Gauge Survey that an environmental crisis or extreme weather events will spark concern regardless of country.  In 2011, concern for climate change in Russia spiked after severe drought caused a food crisis.  In addition the top environmental concern in the US in 2010 was “accidental oil spills.”  This of course was in response to the Deep Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually as a crisis subsides the intensity of concern will drop, however the public is then preconditioned to re-ignite their concern quickly.  We have observed in Green Gauge that consumers in the US have been conditioned to look for fuel efficiency in their car purchases regardless of the prevailing gas/petrol prices.  Years of volatile fuel prices have forced Americans to almost always be concerned about fuel efficiency.

To sum up, people will react to environmental problems once they start to affect their lives. And in many cases, concern for a specific issue or problem will subside somewhat once it is off the radar.  But if extreme weather is now the norm, expect for increasing concern around climate change.  Brands, companies, and governments will have to be ready to react to changing demands.

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