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Attributions for extreme weather events: science and the people

McClure, J., Noy, I., Kashima, Y. & Milfont, T.L. (2022). Attributions for extreme weather events: science and the people. Climatic Change 174, 22. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-022-03443-7


Both climate scientists and non-scientists (laypeople) attribute extreme weather events to various influences. Laypeople’s attributions for these events are important as these attributions likely influence their views and actions about climate change and extreme events. Research has examined laypeople’s attribution scepticism about climate change in general; however, few climate scientists are familiar with the processes underpinning laypeople’s attributions for individual extreme events. Understanding these lay attributions is important for scientists to communicate their findings to the public. Following a brief summary of the way climate scientists calculate attributions for extreme weather events, we focus on cognitive and motivational processes that underlie laypeople’s attributions for specific events. These include a tendency to prefer single-cause rather than multiple-cause explanations, a discounting of whether possible causes covary with extreme events, a preference for sufficient causes over probabilities, applying prevailing causal narratives, and the influence of motivational factors. For climate scientists and communicators who wish to inform the public about the role of climate change in extreme weather events, these patterns suggest several strategies to explain scientists’ attributions for these events and enhance public engagement with climate change. These strategies include showing more explicitly that extreme weather events reflect multiple causal influences, that climate change is a mechanism that covaries with these events and increases the probability and intensity of many of these events, that human emissions contributing to climate change are controllable, and that misleading communications about weather attributions reflect motivated interests rather than good evidence.

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