The Impact of Extreme Weather on Views about Climate Policy in the United States

Recent experiences of extreme weather events and public views on climate change as a crisis in need of government action.

Dark clouds and sky during hurricane.

Dark clouds and sky during hurricane.

Over the past five years, extreme weather events have had widespread impacts on households across America, raising concerns about their health and financial harms and building demand for climate action.

As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, a survey done by NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provides powerful evidence that widespread public experiences with extreme weather shape views about climate issues and policies for the future.

The Impact of Extreme Weather on Views About Climate Policy in the United States examines serious problems facing U.S. households nationally who have recently experienced extreme weather events, as well as broader public experiences and perspectives on climate change and related policies. The poll reveals that people around the country understand that climate change is reshaping our communities, making life less predictable, and disrupting our opportunities to lead our healthiest lives—and are increasingly supportive of climate action.

Key Findings

  • Overall, 70% of the U.S. public sees climate change as a crisis or a major problem.   

  • Those who report they have been personally affected by extreme weather events are more likely to say they see climate change in the United States as a crisis (37%) compared with those who have not been affected by such events (16%). (Figure 1)

  • More than 3 in 4 U.S. adults (78%) report being personally affected by extreme weather events and a quarter (24%) of those say extreme weather caused serious health problems. (Figure 2)

  • People of color were far more likely to report serious health problems as a result of extreme weather events. Of those who experienced an extreme weather event in the past 5 years, 51% of Native Americans, 31% of Latino adults, 30% of Asian adults, and 29% of Black adults said they experienced serious health problems as a result. 18% of White adults who experienced extreme weather said the same.

This survey was conducted based on concerns growing from scientific evidence that extreme weather events are strongly linked to adverse health and environmental outcomes. 

Serious health and financial problems from extreme weather 

For households affected by wildfires in the past five years, more than one-third (38%) say they have faced serious health problems as a result of extreme weather, including 1 in 5 (19%) households affected by wildfires specifically citing serious health problems resulting from smoke or lack of clean air. When it comes to serious financial problems, one-third (33%) of households who have experienced rising sea levels, flooding in coastal communities and any type of major flooding in the past five years say they have had serious financial problems as a result of extreme weather. 

Public support for government climate action

The public broadly (65%) believes the government should be doing more to limit climate change. However, 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. When faced with two broad policy choices—limiting carbon emissions and fortifying infrastructure to protect against weather disasters—there is generally higher public support for policies aimed at protecting against future weather disasters (e.g., 57% support increased state spending to prepare for future weather disasters) compared with reducing carbon emissions to limit climate change (e.g., only 39% support a carbon tax if it substantially increases their energy prices).

Summary

Overall, these results suggest that as weather disasters continue to worsen and become more prevalent in the future, public views may gradually shift toward greater support for many policies aimed to limit climate change, as wider shares of the public are personally impacted by these severe events. 

Methodology

This poll was conducted March 31–May 5, 2022, among a probability-based, address-based, nationally representative sample of 2,646 U.S. adults ages 18 or older. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences. This multi-modal survey offered adults three choices to complete the survey: online, landline, and cell phone.

Figure 2. Serious Damage, Health, Financial Problems for U.S. Households Facing Extreme Weather Events in the Past Five Years (in Percent)

StoryCorps: People Share How Climate Change is Harming Health

Ten pairs of friends, family, and loved ones across the United States met to record conversations about how their health and the health of their communities are being impacted by climate change.

Listen to the stories