With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Jason M. Evans is an assistant professor of environmental science at Florida's Stetson University, where he focuses on landscape ecology and has studied how southeastern coastal cities are dealing with rising sea levels. Evans, who got his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, was also the lead author on a recent study evaluating how droughts influence public opinion on climate change and water supply. That study indicated, as others have in the past, that recent weather conditions have a significant influence on how people view climate change. But the study also had a surprising result in finding that older individuals expressed more concern about future water supply.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What has the latest research found about climate change and public opinion, and how did your study try to evaluate something different?
Jason M. Evans: Most of the existing research, at least the stuff that I’ve looked at, has found that with the words climate change, there’s a really big influence on what’s happening right now. One of the more famous examples that I give is a French experiment where psychologists had people come in, and they gave them a whole series of questions testing their attitudes about climate change and global warming. And the only variable that they changed for the respondents was that with some of them there would be a potted plant in the room that was healthy, some of them there was a dead plant, some of them there was a not so healthy plant. It turned out that just the presence of that dead plant was enough to make people really way more concerned about global warming and climate change. And then there’s been other studies about temperature of the day, so on hotter days, people are really a lot more likely to believe that climate change is real than if it’s a cooler day, or you can at least find very significant differences within that. The overall trend is that it seems like attitudes about what’s happening with climate change are very much impacted by what you’re seeing right now or in the very, very close past.
So our study, it ended up being kind of an accident, actually. The reason why we started looking at this is there had been this water survey that was done, and some of the first publications about it were comparing differences between states and attitudes about drought and water conservation and the future of climate change, trying to assess the differences at the state level.
And then someone kind of early on, because we were looking at the data, made the very astute observation, the “duh” commonsensical thing, that have we controlled for the amount of drought that people were experiencing when this study came out? That may influence how you think about future water resource, current water resources, all that. The answer was no, so we decided that we really do need to control for this and see what sort of impact there is.
Trib+Water: Can you give more detail about this survey, where the data came from and how you went about analyzing it?
Evans: So the survey data is actually a long-term project funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Water Survey Needs Assessment Program. The survey’s been conducted in 41 states, so it ended up being a pretty national program. For our study, we looked at nine states in the southeast United States: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. The reason why we chose those nine states was because of the suite of questions that we looked at, which had the questions about global warming’s impact on future precipitation, what about future drought. Those questions were actually first asked within the southeastern states, so those were the only states that we had that whole suite of questions.
And the way it came out is it was run through the land grant institution of each state, and the agricultural extension offices within each state were the leads that would send it out. I was actually working at the University of Georgia at the time, so in Georgia, if you were on the list to get the survey, you’d get a letter and it would be be from the agricultural extension lead for the state of Georgia, the University of Georgia. So for Texas, it was Texas A&M. For Oklahoma, it was Oklahoma State. So that’s how it worked.
Trib+Water: What were your main findings, then?
Evans: The main findings were that as it turns out, the two questions that had to do with climate change and rainfall, that it was very current conditions [that had the biggest impact]. So if there was a high level of drought within the area that someone lived, they were much more likely to believe that the future was going to bring more drought, and then it swamped all the other variables. So we controlled for things like political belief, gender, education, all those, we accounted for all those variables, but the actual drought condition was by far the most significant.
But when it came to water supply, it’s a little bit different. There, it turned out the short-term drought did not have a significant effect. It was really the long-term conditions. The way to interpret that would be if it was raining right now, but if there had been a really severe drought over the past three or four or five years, and it had been very extended, what we found is that still had a very lingering influence about the way people were thinking about water supply. It didn’t go away. Even if it was raining now, but it was still a very severe drought, you still had more of a tendency to be concerned about water supply.
That ended up being a somewhat unexpected finding, and then the way that we speculated and discussed why that might be is you have a big drought and then you end up with water restrictions and then things that go on and stick in people’s minds for a lot longer, they maybe even stay there, like if you have to pay for a new water supply, you’re going to have to pay more for your water bill. Those are the kind of things things that have an impact that even though you’re not in drought now, but you’re still worried about the future of water supply because there had been a big drought.
Trib+Water: You found older individuals were more concerned about future water supply. Why might this be?
Evans: So this is another unexpected result. What we speculated on with that, and I think it was for older individuals were thinking that droughts were getting worse. And we speculated that that could be just like a direct relation to the experience within the Southeast, that there has been, at least within some of the states, there has been a climatological signal that there has been a worsening of droughts.
There had been some older literature that actually had people within their memories was the Dust Bowl, and those people were older at the time and they were more likely to say, “No the droughts in the past were way worse,” and that was correct, that the Dust Bowl was way worse than anything they’d experienced.
So we’re speculating this could take more work to tease at that, but there’s at least some reason to have a basis for speculating that because droughts are getting worse, maybe this is having an imprint on people’s attitudes.
Trib+Water: So what are the implications for those who manage water conservation programs?
Evans: It kind of verifies the idea of when there are these big droughts, if there is a mission to educate about climate change, that when these droughts are happening, that’s when people are more primed to receive that message about climate change. I think that’s important. It’s a pretty intuitive thing, and people intuitively understand that, but this at least gives some more basis.
And then the other side of it is that when you’re trying to evaluate the effectiveness of your programs, surveys like this are often used. As your program is getting evaluated, if you’re not accounting for drought conditions, it could really give you misleading results about how effective your program is.
It may be if you give a pre-survey during a very droughty period and find people are very concerned about water resources, but you give that same survey later, and it happens to be during a very wet period, and you find that people are not as concerned about water supply, maybe, then you may conclude, if you aren't accounting for that, you may conclude that you have a very ineffective program. But it could just be that you need to control for that drought as something that’s going to have an influence on people’s attitudes. So that’s kind of the more weedy, technical side of things. This is just a variable that needs to be controlled for.