Aug. 31 (UPI) -- On their own, natural disasters aren't enough to prompt local climate policy changes.
According to a new study, published this month in the journal Policy Sciences, climate action in response to extreme weather depends on a number of influencing factors, including the number of fatalities and the unusualness of the event.
Because extreme weather is predicted to become more common and increase in intensity as the climate continues to warm, researchers wanted to find out how extreme weather events will influence the local climate change policies.
"There's obviously national and state-level climate change policy, but we're really interested in what goes on at the local level to adapt to these changes," lead study author Leanne Giordono, a post-doctoral researcher at Ohio State University, said in a news release. "Local communities are typically the first to respond to extreme events and disasters. How are they making themselves more resilient -- for example, how are they adapting to more frequent flooding or intense heat?"
Scientists looked at 15 extreme weather events that struck communities in the United States between March 2012 and June 2017. The events included flooding, blizzard, extreme heat, tornadoes, wildfire and a landslide.
To better understand why some communities enacted climate-related policies in response to extreme weather, while others did nothing, researchers analyzed the characteristics of each event, as well as the political atmosphere in the places where they struck.
Researchers found two ways in which extreme weather can lead to local climate policy changes.
"For both recipes, experiencing a high-impact event -- one with many deaths or a presidential disaster declaration -- is a necessary condition for future-oriented policy adoption," Giordono said.
In Democrat-leaning communities, extreme weather events featuring significant fatalities and sustained media coverage triggered local climate policy changes, such as bolstering emergency preparedness plans.
In Republican-leaning communities with a history of uncommon weather events, extreme weather events with significant death tolls prompted policy discussions preparing for future disasters, but without mention of climate change.
All of the documented policy changes were what researchers deemed "instrumental" changes -- damage control strategies, like building fire breaks or levees.
"As opposed to being driven by ideology or a shift in thought process, it's more a means to an end," Giordono said. "'We don't want anyone else to die from tornadoes, so we build a shelter.' It's not typically a systemic response to global climate change."
Researchers found no evidence that extreme weather events motivated local efforts to limit carbon emissions.
Giordono and her colleagues hope their ongoing research can identify strategies for encouraging local climate policy changes.
"What about the vast majority of communities that don't experience a high-impact event -- is there a way to also spark interest in those communities?" Giordono said. "We don't want people to have to experience these types of disasters to make changes."