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How Extreme Weather Is Affecting People's Opinions Of Climate Change


The heavy rains, record floods and extreme weather in the Central U.S. this spring are the kinds of events expected to become more common with climate change. On a reporting trip in Oklahoma and Arkansas last week, NPR's Nathan Rott decided to ask whether the people living through these disasters link them to climate change.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: First day in Oklahoma, first interview, a guy named Matt Breiner is on a bridge near downtown Tulsa watching a bloated Arkansas River surge underneath. Asked if he was worried about the flooding, he says, no, he's not, not for himself - maybe others down river, but he's fine. And then without prompting, he says this.

MATT BREINER: It just tells us that if we're - we got to come to a conclusion about - not to get crazy - but global warming. If this is going to be an ongoing thing...

ROTT: Now, as someone who covers a lot of natural disasters in the U.S., I can tell you that climate change does not often come up when I'm out talking to people on the ground, not like this. And it made me wonder if other people experiencing or seeing the flooding were thinking about climate change, too. So I started to ask. At other windy bridges like this one in Fort Smith, Ark...

Climate change - is that a thing that you guys worry about? Is that a thing that...


ROTT: ...You think...

BREIGH HARDMAN: Somebody in my office...

SAVANNA BOWLING: I think we made somebody mad, and they were like, we're going to get back at Arkansas and Oklahoma (laughter).

HARDMAN: Somebody in my office today...

BOWLING: That's what I think.

HARDMAN: We all owe Al Gore an apology.

ROTT: That was Breigh Hardman, Savanna Bowling and Hunter Moon. I asked at riverside parks in the central part of the state where people like Lucero Silva were watching other folks fish the muddy waters for catfish.

LUCERO SILVA: Yes, actually, we were just talking about that earlier with my family that had came over, and I think it is affecting the world right now. And we should probably start doing something.

ROTT: I asked at donation centers where people like Benita Teague, who had to flee her house from the flooding, were picking up supplies.

BENITA TEAGUE: Sure it is. I mean, I don't want to say it, but I think it's got to do with the end of time, you know? I mean, he said it's going to all happen, so...

ROTT: And I asked local officials like Joe Hurst, the mayor of Van Buren, Ark.

JOE HURST: Well, I'm not a scientist, but all I know is it seems like we used to get snow all the time.

ROTT: Now, this was not a scientific survey. I, too, am not a scientist. Elizabeth Albright, though, is.

ELIZABETH ALBRIGHT: Most studies do suggest that experiencing an extreme event does affect one's beliefs about climate change.

ROTT: Albright is with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and she's part of a study looking at the beliefs of people who lived through flooding in Colorado's Front Range in 2013.

ALBRIGHT: And what our broader research question is - how communities rebuild after a climate-related disaster.

ROTT: What actions do they take? This, she says, is the more important question. Marty Matlock, the executive director of the University of Arkansas' Resiliency Center, agrees.

MARTY MATLOCK: People are not questioning that things are changing. The challenge is, how do we motivate people, give people a sense that there is an actual opportunity for influencing that change in a positive way?

ROTT: Getting people to reduce their impact on the environment by conserving energy, for example, or not wasting food. But also, Matlock says, the challenge is getting communities to better prepare for what a warmer climate holds.

MATLOCK: For us, for our generation and probably the next generation, we have to adapt.

ROTT: Matlock is hopeful that flooding like the kind that's happening now in his state will inspire communities to do just that. And he may be right. Again, the mayor of Van Buren, Ark., Joe Hurst...

HURST: There seems to be indications of some changes in the climate, and I don't know what causes it. But all I know is that we're dealing with an historic flood. And now in my mind, I'm going to be prepared for this unprecedented event to happen, you know, a lot more often.

ROTT: And he'll do everything he can, he says, to prepare his town for that future as well. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKLAS PASCHBURG'S "SPARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.