Extreme weather rages, but not concerns over climate change

Looks like the global rise in extreme weather events (cough, Irene) hasn’t been enough to make Americans more concerned about the issue of climate change. But extreme weather has been causing certain regions, particularly with dry, hot climates, to worry more about climate change. Essentially, if extreme weather particularly effects your region, you’re going to be far more worried about it — guess that’s human nature.

According to a Nielsen poll (s nlsn) of 25,000 online consumers from 51 countries, 69 percent of respondents say they are concerned about climate change, up slightly from 66 percent in 2009, but down from 72 percent in 2007. Respondents in the U.S. and China were less concerned about climate change in 2011 than in the past, while respondents in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa were more worried about climate change in 2011.

Other issues to worry about

In particular, only 48 percent of Americans in the recent poll say they are concerned about climate change, which represented one of the sharpest declines (at 14 percentage points) in concern about climate change between 2007 and 2011 compared to respondents in other countries. Americans are far more concerned about debt, rising gas prices, and the economy, said Nielsen U.S. SVP Consumer & Shopper Insights Todd Hale.

Chinese consumers also were less concerned about climate change in the latest poll, and 64 percent said they were concerned in 2011, compared to 77 percent in 2009 (a drop of 17 percent).

For regions with respondents that were less concerned about climate change, other environmental issues also grew in prominence over climate change. For example, environmental concerns like air pollution, use of pesticides, water pollution, packaging waste and water shortages.

Where & why people are worried

In contrast to the declines in concern in the U.S. and China, the study found that concern over climate change increased in Latin America to 90 percent in 2011, up from 85 percent in 2009. In the Middle East and Africa concern over climate jumped to 80 percent in 2011, from 69 percent in 2009 — the highest increase regionally.

Not surprisingly, consumers in Latin America are making the connection between the extreme weather events there and climate change. Says Nielsen Latin America President Arturo García:

Latin America has experienced a number of distressing and impactful environmental events over the last several years, and the region’s consumers are increasingly attributing these events to broad climate change. People are expressing clear concern about unusual weather patterns including increased rainfall, hurricanes, and floods in some parts of Latin America, and severe droughts in others.

Likewise in Africa and the Middle East, people are making the link. Nielsen Egypt Managing Director Ram Mohan Rao says:

The hot and dry climates in many Middle Eastern and African countries and the widely held perception that temperatures are rising every summer has likely led to an increased concern about climate change and weather variation.

Closer to home

If there’s a continued increase in extreme weather events in the U.S., I think concern over climate change will also increase here the U.S., too. Even when rhetoric in political circles has seemed to move away from a discussion around climate change, if the weather gets extreme enough locally, it will be hard not to make the connection. 2010 is looking to be the most extreme weather year on record.

Even if Americans don’t end up having all that much first-hand experience with an increase in these major disasters over the next few years, the influx of photos, videos and news stories (available 24/7 on the web) of people increasingly dying or losing their property in extreme weather events is, could be a persuasive factor. Al Gore thinks so; he’s turning to the intersection of digital media and extreme weather to launch a new social movement called the Climate Reality Project, which will live stream content that shows how extreme weather has affected people’s lives and will take place Sept. 14 and 15.

Of course, weather events like hurricane Irene can’t solely be attributed to climate change, but scientists generally are willing to say they think hurricanes will get more extreme thanks to climate change. But we’ll have to see how extreme and prevalent these storms need to be to convince more Americans to become worried about climate change.

Image courtesy of NASA Goddard, Photo and Video, Undertow 851, brownpau, and Matt and Kim Rudge.