Sarah Ahmed and Michael Morgan

Everyone saw the news, the pictures, the videos. When Superstorm Sandy ravaged the shores of New York and New Jersey, it did so as the deadliest and costliest storm in American history. The cost of the damage was astronomical, 48 people died in New York alone, millions suffered from power loss, and structural damage costs were upwards of $75 billion.

Months later, New York residents directly impacted by Superstorm Sandy are being analyzed for their opinions on what might have caused the tremendous storm.  My friend Michael Morgan and I were both intrigued by how public perception of climate change might shift after a natural disaster. Our study thus focuses on how personal experience with a natural disaster may impact public opinions on climate change.

Our hypothesis is simple; we believe that people hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy will have differing opinions on climate change compared to individuals who were not impacted directly, such as Illinois residents. The rationale for this theory stems from an understanding of the availability heuristic and factors that induce paradigm shifts. The availability heuristic is simply how a people's perceptions about a certain topic can shift when they are personally affected by something that results from that topic. The former argues that personal experiences affect an individual’s decision-making process. The latter describes the conditions that can cause individuals to think differently about personal beliefs and judgments.

Our study is currently relatively small and samples a small population. We have noticed some interesting perception differences when New Yorkers are compared to Chicagoans. One significant result was that New Yorkers are more likely to believe that climate change can result in structural damages than Chicagoans (this statistic is liable to change). In the future, we wish to obtain survey results from populations of 100 subjects or more from each area affected by Superstorm Sandy and compare these results to survey results from demographically similar areas in Chicago.

Ultimately, our goal is to understand how natural disasters affects the public’s perception of climate change. We believe this research would be valuable for environmental scientists trying to understand what factors can cause average citizen to believe in climate change, become environmentally friendly, or support environmentally friendly legislation. 


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    May 2013