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Does experiencing wildfires create political consensus on resilience measures?

Though partisanship makes it difficult to enact policy to deal with climate change, research shows that experience with wildfires might diminish the partisan gap.

BY Bruce Cain, Bill Lane Center for the American West
ClockSeptember 14, 2020

As of this weekend, 97 large fires have burned 4.7 million acres across the American West, causing widespread evacuations in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho and Utah. The smoke from these summer wildfires has spread very widely over the region, curtailing outdoor activity and sending many to the hospitals with respiratory ailments, heat attacks and strokes.  Will this move us any closer to achieving a consensus on the topic of dealing with climate change?

Evidence from an analysis at the Bill Lane Center, presented on September 11, 2020, at the annual American Political Science Meeting, suggests that it might diminish the partisan gap on taking steps protect communities from wildfires. Republican skepticism about climate change endures, making it hard to enact policy to deal with climate change. A Lane Center survey collected in the Fall of 2019 reveals that Republicans living in California answered that they were less likely to have personally experienced fires and smoke in the previous year than Democrats. Does it mean that Republicans were more insulated than Democrats from these events or that the partisan biases were coloring their perceptions?    

Merging geocoded data on proximity to wildfire events and the density of wildfire smoke, a team of researchers led by Iris Hui discovered that that Republicans were not different from Democrats in their objective exposure to either the wildfires or the smoke. The gap in whether they felt personally affected by the fires was greatest when Democrats and Republicans did not actually live close to a wildfire or experience dense smoke. As they came to experience more wildfires or dense smoke, their responses tended to converge. In other words, objective circumstance produced convergence and diminished perceptual biases.

Moreover, the BLC study also examined the willingness to spend public money to take protective measures such as upgrading properties to make them more fire resistant, buying out properties in highly dangerous areas, strategic relocation and retreat and providing insurance. Again, the partisan gap was greatest when Democrats and Republicans did not live close to wildfire prone areas or experience dense wildfire smoke, and diminished when they did.

If there is a silver lining in 2020’s compounded summer of misery, it is the possibility that the shared experience of extreme weather related events may be creating a little more bipartisan consensus about the need to take climate change more seriously.

Bruce Cain is Director of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West. He is also the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in Humanities and Sciences and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment, at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and at the Precourt Institute for Energy. 

Media Contacts

Bruce Cain

Bill Lane Center for the American West

bcain@stanford.edu

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