When Hurricane Michael flattened entire communities in the Florida Panhandle last fall, most Americans and media outlets responded with an appropriate level of horror and empathy. A few, however, engaged in a pretty ugly form of victim-blaming; observing that the conservative districts that suffered damage voted for politicians who deny climate science—the implication being these Americans got what was coming.
At the time, Earther called out this sort of victim shaming as wrong and counterproductive. But we didn’t have much evidence for how widespread such attitudes are. Now, a social scientist to whom we posed that question last October has gone and taken a first stab at answering it, and the result is both alarming and unsurprising: A lot of people think this way.
In fact, roughly a third of Americans who understand that climate change is real and driven by human activities agree with the idea that climate deniers “get what they deserve” when disasters strike their communities, according to the new research, which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed.
“We were not too surprised though we are a bit disappointed,” Matthew Motta, a postdoctoral researcher studying science communication at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author on the study, told Earther.
Motta and his colleagues from Washington University in St. Louis and Emory University used an online survey tool to poll 4,056 individuals. Respondents were first asked to identify their political leanings on a 7-point scale. The poll then asked whether they think climate change is real and human-driven. Those who answered yes were asked whether they agree with the sentiment that “people who don’t believe in climate change get what they deserve” when natural disasters strike.
Of the 54 percent of respondents who were on board with the scientific consensus—a fraction that tracks other national surveys but is a bit lower than one published last week—the authors found that more than a third think climate deniers are getting their due when a hurricane flattens their town or a wildfire engulfs their city. Nearly 70 percent of these victim-blamers identified as Democrats, with more ideologically liberal respondents tending to dish the blame more.
While previous research has shown that people who hold strongly partisan views tend to dislike the other side more, this finding takes things a disturbing step further. As the authors put it, a “substantial number” of Americans are wishing, or at least accepting, “physical harm as a sort of political retribution.” And lest any right-of-center readers see this as vindication that the libs are a bunch of assholes, Motta pointed out that this sort of victim blaming likely isn’t limited to Democrats.
“I think it would go the other way as well,” he told Earther, citing violent crime as a potential issue that might engender ill will from conservatives if, for instance, the victim was opposed to carrying weapons. That’s a hypothesis he and his colleagues are planning to explore in future work, but one need look no further than Trump’s awful tweets on California’s wildfires for evidence that partisan victim blaming is bi-directional.
While the findings should be taken with a grain of salt until the study is published in a peer-reviewed journal, if the truth is anywhere close to these survey results, it’s bad news. Not only is it deeply shitty to spit on others’ suffering, blaming people for their misery is, in Motta’s extremely evenhanded assessment, “not a solid science communication strategy.” Communications experts often cite discussing shared values and common ground as effective strategies when talking about climate change with a skeptical audience. Shaming people for their beliefs is kind of the opposite.
There’s also the reality that those who suffer most from natural disasters generally have the least power to effect change in our global fossil fuel-driven energy system. With only a handful of years left to rein in the worst consequences of a warming climate, the only people we should be shaming are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place.