Sandy: In the shadow of Katrina

As Hurricane Sandy slammed into the eastern seaboard of North America, the US presidential contest was entering its home stretch. The material damage caused cannot be denied, but analysts have also occupied themselves with two further questions: most immediately, how might Sandy affect the election and, more widely, does the explanation for Sandy’s unusual strength lie in climate change?
Looking back at trends in GlobeScan’s public opinion polling after Katrina provides us with some interesting reflections on both of these questions.
On the immediate political implications, the proportion of Americans who professed trust in the federal government plummeted in the wake of the botched response to hurricane Katrina, from 72 percent in 2004 to 59 percent in 2005. Though this lower figure is still twelve points higher than that seen in our most recent polling, and many other factors were in play at the time, this does suggest that President Obama’s handling of the disaster could well shape his re-election prospects.
Beyond the immediate impact on the election, though, how might Sandy impact wider attitudes towards climate change? Again, a look at the evolution of public opinion post-Katrina is illuminating. Our polling hints at a “Katrina effect,” with a large increase in concern about climate change observed between 2003 and 2006, reversing a long decline through the 1990s. However, in the absence of catastrophes on a similar scale, this issue has been slipping down the agenda since 2007. In 2011, just 39 per cent rate it as a “very serious” issue, and it now ranks behind air pollution, depletion of natural resources, and loss of biodiversity in perceived seriousness. Indeed, of the 23 countries polled in 2011, Americans, along with Nigerians and Kenyans, were among the least likely to say that climate change was a “very serious issue.”
With rising sea levels threatening low-lying cities such as New Orleans, Miami, and New York, similar climatic events in the coming years could see a more entrenched “Katrina effect.” Regardless of who comes out on top in this year’s election, the next President may find himself having to engage with climate change more than he expected.
Finding from the GlobeScan Radar, Wave 1, 2012 
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Director, Sam Mountford.