The climate crisis is already exacerbating dangerous weather. That said, it’s more important than ever to listen to evacuation orders and get out of the way to see if that’s the case catastrophic fires or Hurricanes pimped up. However, new evidence suggests that if politicians and media outlets deny this fact, the effects can put people at risk. The study, published in Science Advances on Friday, sheds light on the ways skepticism about scientific evidence could turn evacuation into a partisan exercise.
The authors examined evacuation patterns during three different deadly hurricanes, including Hurricane Irma in September 2017, Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. To this end, they obtained political and demographic data from district-level election results and the US census from more than 2.7 million US smartphone users who live in the affected areas of Florida and, in the case of Hurricane Harvey, also on the coast of Texas. Based on the constituency a smartphone user lived in, the authors determined their likely political orientation, assuming voters in Trump constituencies are more likely to follow right-wing media.
“Keep in mind that there are about 172,000 counties in the United States so these are very localized estimates of political affiliation,” Elisa Long, lead author and associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, wrote in an email .
For each of these users, they also received smartphone location data, which provided them with high-precision, real-time GPS location data based on location pings. They found that while there wasn’t much of a difference between Democratic and Republican voters’ choices to evacuate during Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew, there was a sharp gap during Hurricane Irma in how those of different political groups responded to the storm. They found that residents who voted Republicans in the 2016 election were about 10% less likely than Democratic voters to evacuate before the storm.
This change was not explained by changes in income or proximity to areas of worst storm surge. The authors suggest that the key between these two storms and Irma was the rhetoric used in conservative media.
Hurricane IrmaAs you may recall, it was a Category 5 storm that hit Florida in 2017, killing 134 people. But just days before Hurricane Irma landed exactly three years ago, conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter made public questioned the severity of the coming storm. On TwitterCoulter predicted (if you can call it that) the “light rain” and said residents were “in danger of dying of boredom”. And on his radio show, Limbaugh claimed the Liberals were exaggerating statements about the severity of the hurricane to “advance a political agenda”.
“A likely Clinton voter is 11 percent more likely to be evacuated during Irma than a nearby Trump voter. However, this effect only occurs after conservative media sparked skepticism in September 2017,” Long said. “There was no difference before the skepticism arose, but a large partisan gap afterwards.”
The study is concerned about this Exposure to conservative media could affect Americans’ beliefs about the severity of the Covid-19 crisis and generate skepticism that may be encouraging dangerous behavior. The new study shows that climate denial by conservative experts can have a similar effect.
“Aside from its technical accuracy, what impressed me about this study was how it identifies the different roles that individual zealots – who fundamentally lack the power to make a rational scientific assessment of the central issue – can play in projecting doubts among the masses Fall and so many more to come put millions of livelihoods at risk, “said Alex Petersen, a researcher at the University of California at Merced who studied echo chambers but did not work on the study, in an email.
Lange hopes the new research will help policymakers and first aid agencies better understand how different groups of people react to government-issued natural disaster alerts.
“This could help allocate limited resources more effectively and identify better ways to communicate risk information to ensure that the most vulnerable populations respond appropriately,” she said.
Armed with these insights and research methods, officials could attempt to counter the consequences of consuming misinformation in the media by targeting populations where warnings may be taken less seriously. If the new study of the power of conservative media is correct, such actions could save lives.