Crellin, C., MacNeil, R. Extreme weather events and public attention to climate change in Australia. Climatic Change 176, 121 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-023-03601-5
As climate change causes severe weather events to become more frequent and intense, the public’s experience of these extreme episodes has the potential to drive greater awareness about the climate crisis, which could, in turn, increase pressure for more ambitious policy action (Konisky et al. 2016; Myers et al. 2013). This could theoretically occur if these episodes are able to serve as ‘focusing events’, during which activists and policymakers can capitalise on heightened public attention to implement stronger policies (Birkland 2006).
While there is a growing body of research on the role that focusing events can play in this regard (see, e.g. Herrnstadt and Meuhlegger 2014; Konisky et al. 2016; Sisco et al. 2017), key questions remain around the nature and conditions of this heightened attention, its longevity, how it applies in different societies, and how these attention cycles may be changing over time. Aiming to fill in some of these gaps, our study focuses on the Australian context (which has been largely ignored to date) and seeks to understand how different types of extreme weather events might impact this ‘attention cycle’ (Downs 1972) differently in terms of intensity and longevity and whether or not these extreme events are garnering more ‘climate attention’ in recent years.
To that end, our study regressed the Google Trends Intensity Index for the search terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ in the months immediately following three different types of extreme weather events (bushfires, floods, and storms) in Australia between 2008 and 2020. We found that, in Australia, heightened attention to climate change following an extreme weather event tended to be positive, but rather short-lived, and there were notable differences in the intensity and duration of this attention depending on the type of weather event. Major bushfires tended to generate the greatest longevity and relatively significant intensity; extreme storms had the greatest intensity but very little longevity, while major flooding events did not appear to generate statistically significant attention to climate change. Our study further indicated that, despite an increased tendency for the media to associate extreme weather with climate change over the past decade, the level of ‘climate attention’ following extreme events does not appear to be significantly increasing over time. In the following sections, we explain our methodology and results and briefly reflect on how these findings contribute to discussions around Australian climate policy.