In the wake of devastating floods in Germany in 2013, some affected householders recognized the connection between extreme weather and climate change and sought out green energy sources, according to analyses of insurance payouts and Internet searches conducted by researchers—but the effect was small.
The results suggest that promoting environmental action in the wake of climate disasters may not be very effective, says Daniel Osberghaus, an economist at the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim, Germany, and coauthor of the study, which was published in the journal Climate Change. “It’s a little bit of a sobering result,” he says.
Several past studies had suggested that experiencing extreme weather, such as heat waves or hurricanes, makes the threat of climate change more personal and immediate. For example, diverse weather events were found to boost Twitter discussions about climate change, and people who said they had experienced floods were more likely to be concerned about climate change. These studies often looked for correlations with the subsequent actions taken by affected persons. Many also asked people to report their opinions and experiences months or years later, so the recollections might not have been accurate.
Looking for climate engagement at a single time—say, on a hot day—can be risky, since other factors, unknown to the scientists, could also influence climate interest. Osberghaus’s study is unusual in that he was able to track attitudes longitudinally, gauging green energy interest before and after the floods. He also used objective measures of both flood damage and climate concerns.
The study focused on the June 2013 floods in Germany, which overflowed the Danube and Elbe rivers. The waters caused 14 deaths and 5 billion euros in damages; 80,000 people had to be evacuated. To assess flood damage, the authors relied on insurance data, dividing 402 German districts into those with little damage (average insurance payout less than 47 euros), moderate damage (47–283 euros), and high damage (more than 283 euros).
As a proxy for engagement in climate concerns, Osberghaus gauged interest in clean energy. In Germany (as in much of the United States), householders looking for electricity providers can pay a bit extra for a guarantee that the power will come from renewable sources. A 2013 survey of more than 2,000 Germans and Americans, published in 2014, found that Germans think renewable energy is the most effective measure a household can take against climate change.
Osberghaus analyzed more than 10 million search sessions at comparison-shopping websites between 2012 and 2014. He focused on whether a person’s last search included a filter for green options.
The researchers found that among households moderately affected by the 2013 floods, use of the green energy filter rose by 0.45 percent, a statistically significant amount. Osberghaus acknowledges the change was small, however, corresponding to 2,700 additional searches for green energy among 850,000 total searches by people affected by flooding. And the data don’t indicate that searchers actually selected and paid for the cleaner energy.
Other studies of extreme weather and human response have suggested larger effects, he notes, and may have overstated the connection because they were less objective or not longitudinal. But, he adds, it’s also possible that buying green energy isn’t as affected by extreme climate events as much as other measures of climate engagement.
“I would call it heartening that people are making that connection,” says Corey Lang, an environmental economist at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, who was not involved in the study. “But it’s a very small proportion of people.”
Oddly, the boost in green energy searches disappeared in households that suffered high flood damage. While the study authors can’t be sure why, they speculate that people who had severe damage to their homes might have had other remodeling expenses that precluded paying a higher price for green electricity. Or perhaps, notes Osberghaus, people were so mentally devastated that they went into denial about the risks of climate change as a coping mechanism. Or they may have adopted a fatalist attitude, believing nothing they could do would change the outcome. Lang wonders whether the dip in response among the more flood-affected households is real; he’d like to see it replicated in similar studies.
In principle, the results have practical implications. “Sometimes we can observe that some policymakers or green parties or NGOs are trying to use these extreme weather events in the past to get people to act on climate change,” says Osberghaus. “Our results may be showing that this strategy is not as helpful as you maybe hoped.”
In fact, in unpublished results from a survey of more than 12,000 German households between 2012 and 2015, he discovered that people who believed in climate change strengthened their position after the flooding—but that climate change deniers were even more certain it was a hoax.
The right public engagement strategy could depend on the factors people take into consideration when committing to green energy or other protections, says Osberghaus. For example, if green energy prices are the primary concern for victims post-disaster, policymakers might think about subsidizing green energy costs. If a sense of fatalism among the affected is prominent, then environmentalists might provide information about how one household’s actions can make a difference.